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Local Fiddle Broadcasting
P.E.I. had an early start getting its fiddle players on the air. In 1925 — just three years after the very first appearance of U.S. country fiddling on radio — a show on newly founded Charlottetown radio station CFCY, featuring fiddler Lem Jay, became the Island’s first regularly scheduled, live-entertainment broadcast. What’s more, CFCY’s live broadcasts of the Great Fiddle Contest of 1926 first established the station as a region presence.
Jay hosted a weekly 90-minute fiddling show on CFCY from mid-1925 until 1931. From 1931 through 1958, he appeared on radio just once a year, offering a special half-hour, live broadcast in late December on CFCY’s weekly Outports show. He always included two signature numbers: Bonaparte Crossing the Alps and Jay’s Reel.
A number of other Island fiddlers appeared on Charlottetown-based radio in the 1920s, including Hector MacDonald and Robert Weeks. In the 1930s, the most popular band on CFCY was known as the Merry Makers, whose most popular configuration featured fiddlers Al Dowling of Charlottetown and Hélaire Gallant of Rustico. The most prominent radio fiddler of this period was George Chappelle of Charlottetown, who fronted a band known as George Chappelle and the Merry Islanders. In 1939, CFCY replaced Chappelle with a band leader from New Brunswick named Don Messer, who in effect became the station’s flagship fiddler. Once the Messer era got underway, interest on the part of the local media in promoting Island fiddling all but disappeared.
P.E.I. fiddling was featured on radio after 1939, but primarily on an ad hoc, or amateur, basis (two Island fiddlers who played on Island radio in the 1940s and early 1950s were John Gauthier and Peter Doiron). Live fiddle-music broadcasting came to an end on CFCY and other Charlottetown stations in 1958 when Messer left the Island. However, it continued informally on Summerside station CJRW, which from the mid-1950s through the mid-1980s aired an amateur talent show hosted by Lowell Huestis, called the West Prince Party Line.
Although CFCY all but pioneered radio broadcasting in the Maritimes, at first relatively few Islanders had easy access to the new technology. There were few radios in rural P.E.I. until deep into the 1930s, and most families who had radios strictly rationed their listening time. Until the 1950s, few rural Islanders had electricity and powered their radio sets using storage batteries, akin in size and method of operation to those found in modern automobiles. Since these batteries had to be periodically recharged for a relatively hefty fee at the local general store, this created the need for rationing.
Similarly, phonographs were not especially plentiful in rural Island districts until the 1950s.Without a strong local market for phonograph disks, there was little incentive to create commercial recordings of prominent Island musicians. In consequence, although a few disks were cut individually over the years as souvenirs, no recordings of Island fiddlers intended for commercial release were made prior to the modern era.
A Lack of Media Models
From 1939 through much of the 1990s, Island fiddling existed in the shadow of two major regional broadcasting and recording powerhouses. Essentially, there was the style of Don Messer on the one hand (which includes Messer's musical heirs such as Ivan Hicks, Ned Landry and Graham Townsend), and that of Cape Breton’s elite fiddlers on the other. Together, these two styles dominated the local media market and there were virtually no media models available to show what professional-level Prince Edward Island playing might be like. Since no local sound was available to serve as a template, exposure to audio mass media had relatively little influence during this period on Island regional and individual playing styles.
Fiddling on radio and recordings had its principal local impact in terms of repertoire, and hundreds of new tunes were introduced. Since the late 1930s, recordings and broadcasts by Messer and by elite Cape Breton fiddlers have been the primary tune sources. Two other important sources for repertoire were station CHNC of New Carlisle, Quebec (featuring Québécois players), and station WWVA of Wheeling, West Virginia (featuring early country and Appalachian fiddle music).