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The Spirit of Man Goeth Upward

Research by Laura S. McKee, Berea Sound Fellow, regrading how WW-II era radio and personal histories have shaped the development of "From the Diary of Eve", a narrative series of poems set in Southern Appalachia.

Kentucky Nativity Play, 1938

 

The Kentucky Nativity Play is a three-­act (“The Annunciation,” “The Search for the Inn,” and “The Birth of Christ”) radio play written and directed by John Jacob Niles. The play is comprised of dialogue, high church, and folk songs (minstrel songs, dulcimer music), as well as discussion of Christmas traditions, including those with pagan roots. The musical and linguistic textures of the play are varied and complex, and there is a constant play between the serious and the humorous, the decorous and the idiomatic.

As with Roosevelt’s speech in Louisville, this will be one of the early broadcasts Eve hears during her stay in Kentucky, and she delights in the juxtaposition of the formal and folksy—the historical excavations (i.e. Roman traditions during the “Saturnalia” festival) alongside the traditional nativity story. She is particularly struck by the minstrel song (sandwiched between two high church hymns) called “The Kissing Bush,” with the following lyrics: “Dame what makes your ducks to die on Christmas day in the morning?...Their wings are caught they cannot fly.”

 

"The Kentucky Nativity Play," Act I, Annunciation. 12-21-38, Part I
WS-ET-38036. WHAS Historical Radio Collection, 1936-1967, HC 41.

 


"The Kentucky Nativity Play," Act II, The Search For The Inn. 12-22-38, Part I
WS-ET-38037. WHAS Historical Radio Collection, 1936-1967, HC 41.

"Eleven AM" Armistice Day remembrance, 11-11-39

This is a radio play that recounts fictional episodes from Armistice Day told from a range of character viewpoints: American and Russian soldiers, a German prisoner of war, an Army Cook, a “Red Cross Girl,” and French citizen, among others. The tone fluctuates over the course of the show: touching on the tragedies of war, such as hunger, deprivation, and grief, as well as the humor inherent in mundane activities brushing up against enormous historical events. In one scene, for example, Russians revel in the wonder at American foodstuffs from “Hoboken.” In another scene, an army cook recounts how his first response to the news of the armistice was to “quit peeling potatoes.”

Eve and Patrick’s Uncle Isaac is a World War I veteran. From him, they learn about the realities of war as they listen to the mounting conflict in Europe. The Armistice Day broadcast will serve as an opportunity for their uncle to recount his own experiences as a soldier. Though his tales deeply trouble Eve, they further inspire her interest in medicine. For her brother Patrick, these same stories ignite a fierce, if misguided, patriotism and idealization of the battlefield. He enlists in the army as soon as he is of age. Excerpts from the Armistice Day broadcast will appear in poems throughout Chapter Two. “Patrick in the Field” a poem included below, recounts a scene between Eve and Patrick on their uncle’s property the day he enlists.


"Eleven A.M." with John Jacob Niles, Armistice Day drama, 11-11-39, Parts I & II
WS-ET-38045/47. WHAS Historical Radio Collection, 1936-1967, HC 41.

"Patrick in the Field"

Thunder gathered at the cloud line as we
ducked beneath barbed wired fences. Metal
ribbons grazing dust from our skin. We wandered

through property boundaries, waded through grass
grown wild, saplings catapulting from our shins
as we stomped towards the woods. In my heart,

worry rattled like a rusted bell. He was leaving
to join the Army. To shoot
them Kaiser boys right through the windows

of their brains. A thing he liked to say
though it made no sense. I knew he imagined
they’d drop like bottles. How glass shattered

under the gaze of his shotgun.
He kicked at a shrub of mountain laurel;
black-­‐throated wrens boiled up from its branches.

You bleeding, he said, pointing at
my elbow where barbed wire had caught
the skin. Anthills puckered in the dirt,

and as we walked, he razed them with the blade
of his heel. Ain't nobody a better shot,
than me he said, scrunching his eye shut

and snatching up his arms like a gun.
There won’t see me coming, he said, laughing
so hard I knew he was afraid.