Hugh Morgan Hill (July 12, 1921 – November 3, 2009) who performed as Brother Blue, was an American educator, storyteller, actor, musician, and street performer based principally in the Boston area. After serving as First Lieutenant from 1943 to 1946 in the segregated United States Army in World War II and being honorably discharged, he received a BA from Harvard College in 1948 (cum laude in Social Relations), was accepted into the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) before transferring to receive a MFA from the Yale School of Drama and a Ph.D. (Divinity with pastoral sacred storytelling) from the Union Institute, having delivered his doctoral presentation at Boston’s Deer Island Prison, accompanied by a 25-piece jazz orchestra, with a video recording for his dissertation committee’s further consideration. While performing frequently at U.S. National Storytelling Festivals and flown abroad by organizations and patrons from England to Russia and the Bahamas, Brother Blue regularly performed on the streets around Cambridge, most notably in Harvard Square. He was the Official Storyteller of Boston and of Cambridge by resolutions of both city councils.
Brother Blue was a 2009 recipient of the W. E. B. Du Bois Medal from the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, named for William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the first African American to earn a Harvard PhD in 1895. Brother Blue’s award was accepted posthumously on his behalf by his spouse, Ruth Edmonds Hill, oral historian at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, on December 4, 2009. In his performances and in private communications, Brother Blue frequently exhorted people to tell “stories that change the world,” with the combination caveat-encouragement, “We want a story from your heart. If it’s not from your heart, don’t tell it.”
Youth and early career
Hill was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Raised in the boisterously revivalist African Methodist Episcopal church of the 1920s and 1930s, he was the grandson of a slave who heard tales of his grandfather’s slavery from his father, a devout Christian. The Hills lived in a poor area in Cleveland, Ohio as one of the few black families in their neighborhood. Brother Blue recalled his childhood as a rough time, saying “I’m like a flower who grew up in rocky soil.” During Sunday church services, Blue found his voice telling stories, carrying this art forward into Sunday school sessions he taught after prayer.
Entering Harvard on scholarship, Brother Blue won the undergraduate Boylston Prize for his recital of a speech penned and originally orated by Haitian slave rebellion leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. He subsequently won the Walt Whitman International Media Competition for delivering selections from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Inspired by American Civil Liberties attorney Clarence Darrow of Scopes Trial, son of an abolitionist family, Brother Blue initially intended to apply to law school in order to become “the black Clarence Darrow.” However his storytelling calling brought him successfully to Yale School of Drama’s graduate school instead before obtaining his doctorate in Divinity from the Union Institute.
Brother Blue and Ruth’s ubiquitous symbol is the blue butterfly, usually styled in the wing and scale patterns of the densely blue or solid blue morpho native to South America yet admired around the world for its over 80 species, a globe-spanning welcome totem. Personally dedicated to improvisation, Brother Blue welcomed variation in its styling, acknowledging its ancient Greek association with the diversities and flights of psyche. In the later part of his career, Brother Blue constantly wore a broad breast-plate sized medallion suspended around his neck which was a gift among the butterfly tokens with which people expressed their appreciation and affection for the Hills. Even then, many other butterflies from the myriad he wore through his career bedecked his whole body, and blue butterflies were frequently painted on cheeks and in the palms of his hands, with blue ballpoint pens when no other cosmetic was handy; blue butterflies in his palms are featured in his role as Merlin in the 1981 George A. Romero film Knightriders and the camera zooms in on his butterfly hand sadly and poetically waving goodbye at the camera during a funeral at which he officiates in the film. The morpho butterfly or large, fanciful blue hued lepidoptera grace Brother Blue’s publications, media jackets, festival banners, ornamental staff, and stages. The story of a caterpillar’s struggles, hopes and dreams and metamorphosis into a butterfly was one of Brother Blue’s signature motifs.
Usually sporting a close-fitting hat, Brother Blue particularly favored a blue beret on which butterfly pins, some with rhinestones or sea opals, were affixed. He wore a sash emblazoned with “BROTHER BLUE STORYTELLER” in his capacity as Official Storyteller of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lacing his shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, knees, ankles and elsewhere were often curling ribbons, and he was known to carry bright blue balloons with his predominantly blue ensemble, underlying his finery with blue turtlenecks or collared shirts and blue pants. In the Judaic and Vedic and African traditions, he often appeared barefoot or would take off his shoes in the early course of a performance to touch earth as sacred ground.
Brother Blue’s 2002 business card read “Storyteller, Street Poet, Soul Theater”.
“From the middle of the middle of me,” Brother Blue would say, swirling his finger in magical airs in the space between you then gently tapping it toward your heart, “to the middle of the middle of you …” And he would say with growling resonance, “I am older than the oldest stories, I am the storyteller.” A signature story which gave form to one face of this archetypal “storyteller” from Blue is his tale of Muddy Duddy, a fictional musician who could hear the sound of a harp coming out of the earth.
Brother Blue’s unique style of storytelling made extensive use of rhyme, rhythm, and improvisation, creating a verbal jazz of words and images. He referred to himself as a street poet and, in the same words as Saint Francis of Assisi, as “God’s fool”. He told idiosyncratic versions of Shakespeare’s King Lear, “The Big O, Othell-O” and Romeo and Juliet, a variety of self-mythologizing autobiographical stories, and always his signature story about a caterpillar’s first vision of a butterfly. MacArthur Fellow, Salzburg Festival bad boy wunderkind of re-visioned theatrical works Peter Sellars (Harvard College Class of 1981) cast Brother Blue as an idiosyncratic actor in updated classical productions in such venues as The American Repertory Theater.
As an educator, Brother Blue taught at the Episcopal and Harvard Divinity Schools, then with Ruth Hill in the Harvard Storytelling Workshop held in venues across Harvard University’s campus, on television through WGBH, and in his most casual later forum, Storytelling with Brother Blue.
The epic in the human situation, fundamental issues of birth, love, loss of siblings, anguish, death, subjective ugliness, impairment, imprisonment, divinity, freedom, imagination, daring, yearning, and the discontent which transforms social roles, conveyed through the most ancient of story cycles, African and Franco-Welsh legend, Shakespeare, modern jazz interpretations, and post-post-modern improvisation reaching directly to epic gestalt through even humble incidents are an enduring weight in Brother Blue’s compositions, performance, professing in academia and in practica.
Often these grand themes would pour through picaresque characters, though also through socially high profile characters portrayed such as Othello or unnamed archetypal personalities such as the Old Storyteller or This Little Girl or Someone Who’s Somewhere Everywhere.
Heuristics and story coaching methodology
With great controversy, Brother Blue’s refusal, at a phase of his evolution, to give grades to graduate students in university courses he taught, and then his formal adoption of an ethic of not “criticizing” in the usual senses but effusively “appreciating” and mainly “saying thank you” in response to performances he proctored, coached, or judged, set him even farther along the liberal humanist spectrum of oral storytelling critiquing whose kindly edge was otherwise defined in his later lifetime by the work of Doug Lipman’s guidelines for Story Dynamics coaching, which filled out further in the eulogistic direction of Brother Blue’s radical stance by Lipman’s middle period schema in his collaboration with Jay O’Callahan among Brother Blue’s internationally influential League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling (LANES) colleagues who treat this subject systematically within the oral storytelling field as well as in corporate consultation toward realizing human potential. Cautious of “the green dance” himself, Brother Blue eschewed the world of commerce and economics as much as the formality of numericalized aptitude assessment, and explained that he preferred to address people “in their wonderfulness” regardless of their situation and the tentativeness of their product and expression, calling on their individual superlativeness.
Improvisation was a pervasive element in Brother Blue’s performances and one of the chief skills he nourished in others. “I call it cosmic jazz. I don’t repeat myself, I don’t write it down, you can’t get it in a book, in a book” he said (2008).
In the early and middle parts of his career, Brother Blue practiced Calling the Muse to open any gathering of storytellers or storytelling.
Universal themes, lore, personalities, motifs and penumbra referenced in Brother Blue’s opus include: caterpillar, metamorphosis and butterfly (which gave its ancient Greek sense to modern concepts of psyche)
Brother Blue believed that telling stories is a divine calling. “I think I was anointed to be a storyteller—I mean touched by the fire,” he said. “I can tell stories in my sleep and blow the world away!” Avowing that he was “working on greatness!” he described what he sought from everyone as “stories to change the world.” He declared that “Love will overcome all in this world. Love’s gonna win. Nothing can stop this. There will be these fools that come along, and I don’t mind being that fool, who is trying to express that. I have this madness—volition—this chosen madness to believe that I can change this world”. “Storytelling is a sacred art,” he emphasized. “And the irony of it is that most people—if you say that—back away. They want to be amused mostly, or have a way of passing a little time. Not Blue. Even when I’m trying to be funny, I’m trying to give you my soul. That’s strong”.
Brother Blue’s chief musical instruments were harmonica and human voice, and occasionally tambourine, drums, and the gnashing of chains, featuring genuine early American slave chains he used in an early signature story developed in performance to his class while he was a Divinity School teaching fellow. Finger snapping, stomping and dancing, often barefoot, are featured in many of his performances.
At Harvard, Brother Blue studied under Albert Bates Lord who was, with Milman Parry, among the coterie of those who compared the methods of the most venerable surviving contemporary Slavic and Eastern Mediterranean bardic tellers of traditional sagas with the language and content and literary formats of the Homeric epics, concluding that Homeric works derived from or were transcribed out of oral storytelling forms, as ultimately documented in The Singer of Tales (1960) These were themes in global mythography, contemporary with work such as that of Marija Gimbutas and Joseph Campbell which Brother Blue addressed in his training of others. Albert Lord’s 1954 class also led Herbert Mason to write his intensely personal Gilgamesh, A Verse Narrative (1970) as Mason’s own bosom young friend lay deathly ill, and which was narrated for accompaniment to the international museum exhibit, Treasures of the Royal Tombs of Ur, with dedication to both Mason and the Hills by a student of Brother Blue and Ruth Hill as Gilgamesh: God King of Sumer, The Oldest Story in the World, along with Diane Wolkstein’s portrayal of Inanna. Brother Blue also advised a live, partially extempore performances of the Gilgamesh and Inanna cycle for this exhibit at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California.
Professor Albert Lord said that Brother Blue was “sui generis,” meaning in Latin “of a kind of his own” because Brother Blue “does not really belong to any particular tradition in storytelling” but is “a phenomenon in himself.”
Like the bards throughout the ages, Brother Blue was fêted by titular nobility; he is known for the poignancy of his autobiographical tale of telling stories to enthrall, cheer, and uplift an English Duchess, and his feelings of guilt and dismay upon learning of her suicide on the coattails of his departure, wondering “if only” he could have told her just the one more thing, given her the one more smile into her soul…
European-related themes, lore, personalities, motifs and penumbra referenced in Brother Blue’s opus include: Albert Einstein, Homer, Vergil, Dante, William Shakespeare and personal favorites St. Francis of Assissi and Don Quixote, to all of whom he would compare his own, his colleagues’ and his audiences’ works and lives. “I bring Homer to the streets. I bring Sophocles,” he said. “To tell stories, you should know Chaucer. You should know Shakespeare. You should know Keats. You have to be constantly reading. You read, you think, you create. You have to know the new moves: You must be able to rap and be able to sing the blues!”.
He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, aged 88.
United States historical and cultural themes, lore, personalities, motifs and penumbra referenced in Brother Blue’s opus include: Bob Dylan, John Coltrane and Robert F. Kennedy. Brother Blue said he wanted to be “the black Clarence Darrow,” which is why he had intended to go to law school before finding his calling at Yale School of Drama. See also African-American tradition strand, below.
African-American and African-related themes, lore, personalities, motifs and penumbra referenced in Brother Blue’s opus include: “a chicken with a busted wing,” lions, elephants, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., B.B. King. Blue spoke about skin color and racial issues, and being an African American during his own true life adventures.
Brother Blue was frequently featured by the U.S. National Association of Black Storytellers and is frequently referenced by the U.S. griot movement, spearheaded by such oral storyteller griots as Michael D. McCarty in Los Angeles, California, who are extending the original West African griot tradition.
Asian-related themes, lore, personalities, motifs and penumbra referenced in Brother Blue’s opus include: God, Allah, Moses, Imams, Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Indian metaphysics.
An apprentice of Brother Blue and Ruth’s was welcomed with a name in the family of Purna Das Baul Samrat, like Blue crossed over into film actor and celebrity status through contributions in his own generation as pater familias of the Bauls of Bengal, a once home-shunning caste of storytellers who similarly fuse several religious traditions; and Brother Blue and Ruth Hill contributed to early initiatives to unite storytellers globally through organizations departing from this and other links.
Telescoping Brother Blue’s spiritual perspective is his recounting, included in Brother Blue: A Narrative Portrait, of spontaneously piling up a Jacob’s ladder of chairs and climbing to the top of them wordlessly upon invitation of a distinguished Harvard lecturer in advanced Indian philosophies, to personify what was beyond words, as Brother Blue explains. Humanistic feeling for God recognized in our fellow creatures was increasingly emphasized in Brother Blue’s personal work in his latest years, as he continued, with his wife Ruth, to encourage the fruition of storytelling both abroad and always in their own neighborhood community.
Brother Blue, and with him in many instances Ruth Edmonds Hill have collaborated and advised the development of organizations, and have collaborated in creative and editorial works and in performance design.
Performances and bibliography
Storytelling festivals include: