["The difference between an eccentric and a kook is an eccentric has money"-Forrest Fenn.]
Each month over the next year Sothis Medisa will feature a very brief sketch of someone who did things their own way, who lived their own iconoclastic life. Last month we looked at the impotent troubadour Tiny Tim, whose freakish ways paled compared to his mastery of song. This month we are going to look at the amazing metamorphosis of Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill, Brother Blue.
(If you are interested in the background of WHY I am writing these notes on American weirdos you can read this post by John Michael Greer on Johnny Appleseed's America.)
Each of these sketches has come about by current research, fascination, and synchronicity. A number of the characters in this series have been new personalities for me, people whose lives I've only discovered within the past year or two. Others, like Henry Flynt, I'd heard of but hadn't investigated before. Tiny Tim and Joybubble's had been the only two whose lives I'd read something about. In any case I'm noticing a trend where a lot of the people I've just discovered have been storyteller's such as U. Utah Phillips, Ray Hicks, and now Brother Blue.
The man who came to be known Brother Blue was born in a rough, dirt poor section of Cleveland, Ohio. "I'm like a flower who grew up in rocky soil," he said. His father worked as a bricklayer and the neighborhood they lived in was white. Brother Blue said of it, "We were one black button in a field of snow."
Born as Hugh Morgan Hill on July 12, 1921, his younger brother had mental retardation, and couldn't pronounce "Hugh" right, and called his older sib "Brother Boo". When Hugh became a storyteller in the 1960s he changed his name to Brother Blue in part to honor his little brother. His sibling also had an obsession with butterflies, and this symbol became an important motif in Brother Blues declaimed tales.
As a school lad, the man whose Hugh was Blue, became inspired by grade-school teacher, Miss Wunderlich who gave him the encouragement to do his best. She saw in him a bright light and nurtured his nascent spark.
Brother Blue served the United States during the atrocities of WWII in the army in both the Europe and Pacific theaters. Yet he had a calling towards a different theater than the theater of war, and when he came back home, having risen to the rank of first lieutenant, he went to Harvard under the G.I. Bill of Rights. He got a degree in social relations which was a combination of psychology, sociology and anthropology. In 1950 he married Ruth Edmonds, a force of nature in her own right, and then went on to earn his Masters degree in playwrighting from Yale in 1953.
Even as much as he was drawn to theater and the works of Shakespeare and other playwrights, he had a hard time writing plays. Yet he did well in describing his story ideas to his friends, thus he gradually metamorphed from playwright-by-training to storyteller-by-calling and inclination.
So Brother Blue settled into his vocation as a storyteller, telling stories on the street, in schools, theaters, festivals, on the corner, from pulpits, on streets, in prisons to inmates. He eventually went back to school again for his doctorate, which he received in storytelling. He performed his thesis, which was on the topic of prison storytelling, with accompaniment from a 25-piece jazz orchestra. It was this time that he also adopted the name that had come to him from his brother.
He also adopted his brothers favorite animal, the butterfly as his personal iconography. He would paint butterflies on his face and hands and he dressed from toe-to-tip-top-of-the-head in bright blue clothing, often adorned with ribbons and balloons.
To him storytelling was sacred. It was a path of redemption and awakening bringing the storyteller and those in the orbit of the story further on a path towards universal harmony. And all of creation was in the orbit of the story according to Brother Blue. He said, “When you tell a story, you tell it to all creation. It’s cosmic. It never goes away.”
Brother Blue had a number of signature tales, but one he would often say began this way. "From the middle of the middle of me, to the middle of the middle of you ..." As he declaimed he would use his entire body and being to also telle the tale. He would use his hands to make magical gestures, and tap on his heart and point to the heart of his audience. "I am older than the oldest stories, I am the storyteller."
One of his stories that dealt with the archetypal "storyteller" was that of Muddy Duddy, a musician who had the power to hear the sound of a harp playing deep within the earth.
Yet he also spun one man versions of Shakespeare, rapping them up, jazzing them out, improvising and throwing in elements from the news of the day, or being inspired to bring in elements from whomever happened to be in the crowd. He used stories as his standards, but was able to extrapolate, interpolate, and condensate them down to essential meanings. His favorite tales from whom he called Will the Shake were Othello, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear.
He mixed the old with the new, saying "I bring Homer to the streets. I bring Sophocles." And: "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!"
Storytelling became his life, his mission. He performed frequently at Storytelling Festivals, sometimes showing up and declaiming on nearby streets, not even at the festival proper which was the case when U. Utah Phillips first encountered him and was caught under his spell. Phillips recalled how Brother Blue leaned into the audience with a presence. This leaning in to the present moment was something Phillips said influenced his own storytelling.
He was also flown around the world to tell stories in various countries for various occassions. Besides teaching through stories Brother Blue also worked as an educator at the Episcopal and Harvard Divinity Schools. With his wife he taught the Harvard Storytelling Workshop.
As a genuine griot who claimed had been anointed to storytelling by a kind of holy fire, he also employed instruments in his telling of tales. Like Ray Hicks he had adopted the French harp -or harmonica- as his main instrument, but he also employed drums and tambourines, and even chains. The chains were genuine slave chains he used in one of his stories on that subject.
At Harvard he studied with Albert Bates Lord, a professor of Slavic and comparative literature. In 1960 Lord had authored the book The Singer of Tales. His book discusses oral tradition as a theory of literary composition. Building on the research of Milman Parry, Lord worked with him to record Balkan guslar poets. In his book he applied their findings to Homeric and medieval epics.
In Brother Blues storytelling he mixed all of the things he had learned from the western cannon, with stories from the African American and African traditions and Asian traditions. He read, he thought, he created.
Meanwhile his wife Ruth Edmonds Hill was no slouch either, and she was big into the storytelling game herself. She worked as scholar, oral historian, oral storytelling editor, journal editor, educator, and as an advocate for historic preservation. Sometimes she was called Sister Ruth.
Sister Ruth was most widely acclaimed for her work on the Black Women Oral History Project. This project consisted of interviews with 72 African American women from 1976 to 1981, conducted under the auspices of the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College, now Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Sister Ruth coordinated the project and devoted herself to its completion. Many of the women interviewed were in their 70's, 80's, and 90's.
Sister Ruth continued to collect oral histories. She made extensive field recordings, and guided interviews, of Cambodians, Chinese Americans and other ethnic and sociolect communities. Just as Brother Blue caused him to be an in demand storyteller in far locales, Sister Ruth traveled widely to conduct research and participate in conferences.
Her and her husbands lives intertwined around oral culture: storytelling and recording the stories of everyday people.
In 1981 Brother Blue appeared as the character Merlin in George A. Romero's film Knightriders. It's a Romero film that deserves to be more widely seen. It grew in part out of his fascination with the Society for Creative Anachronism. It is modern retelling of Arthurian stories in the guise of a traveling troupe of carnies/Renfest travelers whose particular gig is jousting on motorcycles. The group tries to live by a code of chivalry and honor gone from modern life, and consistently face obstacles with police, townies, and competition from within their own ranks.
In this setting Brother Blue as Merlin, dressed in his usual attire acts as a spiritual guide to the king of the troupe. In film the camera zooms in on the butterfly painted on his hand in a moment of melancholy. He waves goodbye to the camera during a funeral he is officiating. Brother Blue was deeply aware of all that his animal symbol implied: gestation and transformation, change and emergence.
In his 88 years he received many accolades and awards. In 1999 he received the National Storytelling Network Lifetime Achievement award, for "sustained and exemplary contributions to storytelling in America.” The man who gave the award to him said, "His mother is verse, rhythm and rhyme, and his father is reportedly inverse time.”
After his death in 2009 his wife Ruth received in his honor a posthumous 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 really believed that stories change the world. Speaking of this nation's history he said, "America, I love you for what you could be! Come on America!"
He exhorted his audience and his students to tell stories from the heart. "From the middle of the middle of me, to the middle of the middle of you ..."
Brother Blue's is still out there. Now he can flutter in the spiritual realms, his soul having emerged from the cocoon of this material world.
There are a ton of Brother Blue videos up on youtube that are worth checking out to here and witness his storytelling prowess.
Ahhhh! A Tribute to Brother Blue & Ruth Emonds Hill, Yellow Moon Press, 2003
Brother Blue: A Narrative Portrait of Brother Blue a.k.a Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill, by Warren Lehrer, 1995
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.