A familiar sight in Cambridge for decades, Brother Blue is gone now but not forgotten. Before his death in 2009, the local storyteller, who was the Official Storyteller of both Cambridge and Boston, could be spotted all around Cambridge in his trademark blue beret and clothing, always adorned with butterfly pins and pendants. On March 14, a group gathered at the Cambridge Public Library to reminisce, tell stories, and watch an advance screening of Melvin McCray’s documentary film about the life and legacy of Brother Blue.
The hallway walls outside the library theater were lined with large butterflies, and Eric Bornstein’s enormous Brother Blue puppet stood by the theater door. The event began with a dance by Wendy Jehlen, performed to a recording of breath sounds of Brother Blue. Jason Weeks, Executive Director of the Cambridge Arts Council, introduced Melvin McCray, who screened his film, still a work in progress. The filmmaker, a longtime and award-winning ABC News Editor as well as an adjunct faculty member at Columbia’s Journalism School, will be turning to Kickstarter shortly in order to raise funds to complete the project.
McCray’s film told the story of an unusual life, and was a surprise to those who might have considered Brother Blue as merely a Cambridge eccentric. Born Hugh Morgan Hill in Cleveland, Ohio in 1921, Blue got his name from his brother Tommy, who was developmentally disabled and had trouble pronouncing “Hugh.” Early and ongoing experiences with racism coupled with the loss of his brother, who died young, affected him deeply and drove his life’s work. Blue served in the U.S. Army during World War II, earned degrees at Harvard and Yale, and became a Doctor of Divinity at the Union Institute, where storytelling became his ministry. He told stories on the streets, in schools, in prisons, and in churches. To honor his brother Tommy’s gentle spirit, he used the butterfly as his personal symbol, and incorporated it into his garb, face paint, and stories.
The film made clear that Brother Blue was a deeply talented, extremely intelligent and very brave man who always marched to the beat of his own drummer. One of the more surprising stories in the film was Brother Blue’s account of sitting in the front of a bus in the segregated South of the 1940’s, an act that could have gotten him killed at that time. That bravery was later present in his free-spirited performances, including his role as Merlin in George A. Romero’s film Knightriders. Brother Blue was not a man who was ever constrained by others’ expectations – he called himself a fool for his art – and McCray’s film illustrated that point repeatedly with photos, interview and performance footage, and recollections from others who were touched by Blue’s life and work. In the movie, storyteller Laura Simms commented, “More people misunderstood him than understood him. He wasn’t afraid of what you thought of him.”
The film was also a love story between Brother Blue and his wife Ruth Edmonds Hill (also known as Sister Ruth) a Harvard University Oral Historian, who was in attendance the event. The film told the story of their 50-plus-year marriage, which began with an unexpected telephone proposal in 1950, and was one in which Ruth Hill provided the sensible yin to Brother Blue’s freewheeling yang. In the movie, Brother Blue spoke of his wife with deep affection and thankfulness, referring to her as his “angel wife” and gratefully noting her ability to “stay cool.” Their well-balanced relationship could be seen in footage, images and interviews spanning decades.
The movie screening was followed by a discussion with McCray, Ruth Hill, and Jo Radner, a storyteller and event organizer, who discussed the film and took questions from audience members. The event ended with stories and recollections about Brother Blue from many in attendance. Robert Smyth, an event organizer and friend of the Hill’s, noted that the event was a testament to Brother Blue’s legacy, dedication and ministry, and that Brother Blue “was always able to find something to praise in anyone – his ministry was all about praise.” Echoed Amy Ripley, event attendee, “He lifted you up.” On stage, Ruth Hill reminded those assembled of Brother Blue’s motto: “Don’t Hurt Nobody.” As the evening’s event made clear, Brother Blue was successful in living by those words, and he will long be remembered by those his life touched.
—Melanie Temin Mendez