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The Age-Old Teachings and Joyful Beseechings of Brother Blue

By M. BRETT Gladstone

The Harvard-Radcliffe shuttle bus was making its last run on this frosty February night. Lamont Library had been closed an hour; at Elsie's, the night shift was beginning to put the stools up. Few among the weary students on the bus could have been prepared for the entrance of a blue-costumed storyteller wearing noisy rhinestone butterflies and carrying bright blue balloons.

The students who recognized this bizarre figure as "Brother Blue" immediately demanded a story. Brother Blue began his version of "Little Blue Riding Hood," and had not finished relating the tale when the bus approached the Radcliffe gate. Students on the bus complained, and the driver resolved the problem by taking the bus around the Quad twice. After warning the students to respect their parents, Blue danced off the bus, accompanied by enthusiastic applause.

Eccentricity may be a common feature of life in the Harvard community, but Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill '48 (cum laude in Social Relations) really stretches the imagination. His credits are impressive: after finishing four years as an undergraduate, he entered the GSAS, transferred to the Yale School of Drama where he received his MFA, and received a Ph.D at the Union Graduate School. Not one of the average Cambridge "street people" by any means. Blue's finger-popping, foot-stomping, rhythmic theater has been presented not only in the open air of Harvard Square, but also at his storytelling workshop at the Divinity School.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of this mythical character is that his storytelling is not an act. Blue's speech naturally exhibits the rhythms and cadence of a poet and court jester rolled into one. It is impossible to determine where the narrator ends and the Ph.D begins, for Blue sees his life, and that of the rest of humanity, as a single chronicle. He believes, for instance, that storytelling is his "calling" in the world, and he proclaims himself as "the greatest storyteller of our time." He claims that he is able to tell stories for 24 hours straight without ever repeating himself, and also tells of the time he related a story to an unborn baby who recognized Blue three months after his birth. To substantiate the story, Blue cites recent medical evidence that interuterine life responds to external sounds.

Fully understanding Blue, and what he calls his "mission" in the world, however, requires wading through such rhetorical pronouncements. He comes out of an old tradition--out of the old black African Methodist church, out of rhythm and blues, out of shouts and hollers and revivalism. As a child in a poor area of Cleveland, he heard his father tell of his grandfather who had been a slave. The family took religion very seriously (says Blue, "My daddy wore the Bible out with his eyes,"), and religion remains a very strong facet of Blue's life. Blue began his career as a fabulist by telling stories to his retarded brother, who could neither read nor write, and later died in an institution. One of the few blacks in his neighborhood, Blue recalls a rough childhood. "I'm like a flower who grew up in rocky soil," he says now.

Blue came to Harvard on a scholarship with the intent of going on to Harvard Law School. "I wanted to be the black Clarence Darrow...I was going to start freeing all the people who didn't belong in jail," he says. Impressed with the sermons he heard at Appleton Chapel and Memorial Church here, Blue decided he might help people from the pulpit, and enrolled in Yale Divinity School. But while preaching a funeral sermon there, Blue realized that the ministry was not his calling. "I suddenly realized what a mystery life is, and that I didn't have any ready answers for these people," Blue says. Several years later, he completed his doctoral dissertation at the Union Graduate School by videotaping a presentation he made at the Deer Island Prison in Boston. His extensive education has given him the respect he feels is necessary for his work as a storyteller. "Especially because I'm black, I had to earn some respect for what I was doing. Now I can speak their language, whatever technical terms they ask for." He feels an obligation "to make the translation to the street, to all the forgotten people....the ones who just turn off when they see someone come along in religious clothing."

Blue's material, when closely examined, displays a thorough awareness of his heritage. Occasionally he makes a presentation using slave chains a Harvard professor once loaned to him. "We all have a responsibility to break chains, real ones and invisible ones," he once announced at a men's prison. "It must be done in classrooms and in jail cells...everybody can break chains." With a glimmer in his eye, he asserts that at this moment a riot broke out in the prison. "A coincidence maybe, but this is what happens to a storyteller; if you give your life to storytelling, stories start happening around you." As an undergraduate at Harvard, he won a Boylston Prize for his rendering of a speech by Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian leader of a slave rebellion, and later won the Walt Whitman International Media Competition for selections from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He often compares himself to a jazz musician, stripping down everything to the soul. "I used to blow a blues harp and beat a tambourine, but now my body is my only instrument," he says. Blue often works barefoot, so that, as he puts it, "my toes can sing too."

Blue feels part of an even older tradition, though. In fact, he believes he is carrying the mantle of the great storytellers of all time, including himself among such epic figures as Homer, Vergil and Dante, as well as Bob Dylan, B.B. King, and John Coltrane. Albert B. Lord, Porter Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature, and lecturer in Hum 9b, Oral and Popular Literature, calls Blue "sui-generis" though. Lord believes that Blue "does not really belong to any particular tradition in storytelling." He says that Blue relies on autobiographical material in an improvisational way. "As far as I know, Blue's stories are not those handed down among generations orally. This would more accurately be called oral literature." Lord adds that Blue is "a phenomenon in himself."

Matther Copel '79, who studied Blue's work carefully for a paper in Hum 9b last spring, finds two distinct types of stories in Blue's work: parodies of folk tales, like "Little Blue Riding Hood," and the autobiographical material, which Copel calls "totally oral." Copel doesn't believe Blue has ever memorized any of his autobiographical work, and Blue himself denies even writing it down. "I never do a work the same way twice. I try to work like a jazz musician, blowing an old song from my soul, but blowing it ever new," he says. Blue sees the vacuum that his demise will create in his field, and has taped many of his presentations. And it is for this reason that he has begun storytelling workshops like the one taught last spring at Harvard Divinity School. "I want to be the apple tree making sure I leave enough seeds behind me," he says.

Blue dreams of what he could have done as a medieval troubadour, roaming the streets of Europe. He claims never feeling completely comfortable as a storyteller in present-day society. "There is no tradition of storytelling in our society and no models for it...our society is so non-supportive for storytellers." He cites audio-visual influences such as T.V. as a deterrent to serious storytelling in the traditional sense. Blue laments, "We don't even have children who know they're supposed to listen to stories...you got to be strong to do it."

It is for this reason that Blue often talks these days of a trip to Africa. There, he says, the culture doesn't separate a poet from storyteller from dancer from mime, as is done almost everywhere else. Although he declares himself the greatest storyteller of our time, Blue feels he can learn much by collecting African stories on tape and then translating them.

Africa may be the only place where such figures as Brother Blue can survive in the future. But until he can fund a journey, he will remain in Cambridge, continuing to entertain and counsel people in the streets.

Occasionally, blacks observing Blue on street corners accuse him of demeaning himself in public. However, disapproval does not deter him. "I'm striving for greatness," he usually responds.

Once I had a brother who couldn't talk or anything, and I'm looking for him, brothers...Once upon a time a man with eyes of blue said, "C'mon Blue, why you telling stories in the street for noth'n" ...I don't know...I guess I'm looking for my brother...he died long ago, you know...and he called me Brother Blue...So if you see my brother, he'll be playing peek-a-boo...and though he can't talk, look at him...make your move...my brother's trying to say 'Do you love me?' ...look around you, people...your brother's you...your brother's blue.

I want to put a light on the dark places in our existence...I want to catch the sky bird...I want to show the invisible...I want to reveal the landscape of the soul.

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