Remembering The Greatest Storyteller in the World

Today was the memorial service for The Greatest Storyteller in the World. Hundreds of storytellers, musicians, dancers, artists, poets, professors, politicians and just plain folk gathered at Boston’s Cathedral of Saint Paul to celebrate the life and times of Brother Blue — The Greatest.

Brother Blue, aka Hugh Morgan Hill, died peacefully at home on November 3, 2009 at the age of 88. An internationally renowned storyteller, mentor to hundreds, inspiration to thousands…Brother Blue’s life exemplified his passionate belief that telling and listening to stories changes the world. His stories have changed the worlds of everyone who heard him.

Brother Blue — Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill.

I was part of the memorial, held in Boston’s Cathedral of Saint Paul. I drove in with my tamboura and got stuck in traffic, but I was unable to curse my fate, for I was going to sing for Brother Blue, a man whose personal clock moved on mythic time.

Brother Blue and Ruth Edmonds Hill

Hugh Morgan Hill, (born Cleveland, Ohio in 1921, died Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 3, 2009) who performed as Brother Blue was an African American storyteller, actor, and street performer. He attended and graduated from Harvard College after serving as a lieutenant in the segregated U.S. army in World War II, received an MFA from the Yale School of Drama and a Ph.D. from the Union Institute having delivered his doctoral presentation in prison being accompanied by a 25 piece jazz orchestra. He regularly performed on the streets around Cambridge, most notably in Harvard Square. He was the official storyteller of Boston and Cambridge.

He appeared as an actor in the 1981 film Knightriders directed by George Romero. He is survived by his wife, the oral historian Ruth Edmonds Hill. A tribute to the Hills was published as AHHHH! by Yellow Moon Press, and featured contributions by Romero as well as such authors as Seamus Heaney, Stephen Jay Gould, Howard Zinn, Ossie Davis, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and fellow storytellers Utah Phillips, Linda Goss, Jay O’Callahan, and Diane Wolkstein (and me!).

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 as God’s fool. He told idiosyncratic versions of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” 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.


Brother Blue and Ruth Edmonds Hill

I had decided to present a short song in the Hindustani raga Shankara. The lyrics praise Lord Krishna (who of course is always portrayed as being blue) — “Baansi bajaaye, sundar pyaare / Jamuna kinaare, Yeshoda ke pyaare / Jamuna kinaare, Nand ke dulaare // Yeri bansuri, pyaari! / Sagari bisaari, sudha humaari / Kis bana ki ho, tum lakadi?”

Playing the flute, my beautiful beloved / by the banks of the river Jamuna, the beloved of Yeshoda / by the banks of the river Jamuna, the darling of Nanda. // Oh, beloved flute! / Making me forget everything / From what forest do you come, you simple piece of wood?

Brother Blue was the rarest of individuals, both reed and breath. He was never afraid of anything.

Storyteller after storyteller, singer after singer — all testified to his power as a performer and his luminous concentration as a listener. It was nothing out of the ordinary for any of us to give a talk, sing a song, tell a story — and to have a blue harlequin jump up in the audience, praising you for qualities you didn’t know you possessed. It would have been embarrassing, but after the first experience, you accepted it as your due.

He took on the hardest task imaginable: getting people to listen to one another’s stories without criticism and with acceptance. Hundreds of us agreed on the love he gave us and the love we had for him. It is safe to say that the nature of storytelling as a performance art in America was completely changed by Brother Blue and his work.

Brother Blue in Cambridge, August 2008.

Before there were poetry slams, before rappers ruled radio, there was Brother Blue… a familiar figure in Harvard Square since he took his stories to the streets in 1968, two decades after graduating from Harvard College. He’s been telling stories around the world ever since, creating original tales and borrowing from other cultures. He met Mother Teresa at the United Nations Habitat Forum, he spun “King Lear” on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street at midnight, he told 500 stories in a 72-hour marathon at Boston’s Emmanuel Church, he entertained business travelers over the intercom on a flight into Boston.

Hugh Morgan Hill earned his bachelor’s degree in social relations from Harvard University, a master’s of fine arts in playwrighting from Yale School of Drama and a doctorate in storytelling from Union Graduate School, a collaborative initiative between Harvard and Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. But the promise of a career in academia held no attraction; at some point in the 1960s, he decided that he was going to live his life without compromise. He took to the streets, dressed in blue, festooned with butterflies, dancing, singing, telling stories to anyone who’d stop and listen. His wife Ruth Edmonds Hill, a historian and an expert on oral tradition, was his constant companion, anchoring him, so that when he took off, there was always a link to the planet and to his listeners.

His stories always allowed the listener to imagine bigger worlds, see themselves in the heart of the tale and believe that they, too, were storytellers. Brother Blue said that he told stories, “from the middle of the middle of me to the middle of the middle of you,” and that if you heard another person’s story you could never harm them, so stories could save the world. He never stopped telling stories.

Brother Blue ran a storytelling series in Cambridge for over 20 years, where many storytellers found their own voices. Brother Blue and his wife Ruth always listened with uncritical and loving ears, encouraging everyone. He received multiple international awards for his art and was the official storyteller of both Cambridge and Boston.


The greatest joy was actually watching him perform live on the streets. Long-time Cambridge resident and freelance journalist Phillip Martin said Brother Blue was not your average street performer.

“He was just effusive as if he hadn’t seen you in 20 years,” Martin said, laughing, “and he was sincere — it was not contrived — and he had this spirit that lifted you and it was part of his storytelling.”

Martin said Brother Blue’s stories were steeped in humanity. They were about hope and reconciliation. “Without sounding too Kumbaya-ish, it was often about racial rapprochement, about people coming together, and he was a firm believer in that,” Martin said.


I brought him into my classes every so often. Once it was for a lecture class at Emerson College. As an adjunct faculty member, I didn’t have much of a budget, and I didn’t want to insult him by offering a tiny amount…but I called him anyway, and he waved away any thought of a fee, saying, “I just want to tell my stories with you again.” (I paid him anyway, even though it wasn’t enough). He and Ruth came into the classroom, and I set up my instruments in the middle of the room, and for the next ninety minutes the hundred or so kids in the room were transported. One student who had been surly and uncommunicative for the entire semester wrote me a note, saying, “This class was the single most life-affirming thing I have ever seen.” So it was for all of us.

Kat Powers writes:

It was maybe 15, 20 years ago in Harvard Square, and Brother Blue had a group of tiny kids and skate punks wrapped up in this story which was a retelling of Hamlet. He was covered in butterfly pins — which kept the 1-year-olds enraptured. He was talking about this guy named Shakespeare in just a slightly off color way, describing him to the skate punks as a guy who “you know, the man was important, he was shaking his spear.” And the story was in part about this guy with the name of Yorick, who had enough going on that the 6-year-0lds and the parents were breathless. It could be that day that the sentences were punctuated by a harmonica, but I could be wrapping several of his appearances together, I’ve seen him tell so many stories.


Brother Blue, listening to Wole Soyinka at Harvard University.

(photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

“I’m the man with the blue guitar. Picasso tried to paint me in Paris but he never got my soul.”

“Hey woman, what’s in a name? It’s just a game. It’s the rose, someday they’ll call it soul.”

“The cricket was wicked, singing like Wilson Pickett.”

When Brother Blue speaks, words tumble out in a messy, evocative, inspired stream. It’s as if the well-known storyteller, street performer, and man-about-Cambridge is channeling God, Shakespeare, and James Brown simultaneously. Tambourine in hand, harmonica in pocket, the beribboned, butterfly-festooned Blue is a one-man multimedia show – a whirl of riffing, rhyming, finger-snapping, foot-stomping prose. “They say I’m the greatest in the world and I probably am,” says this modern griot without a trace of modesty.

(Text by Beth Potier – Harvard Gazette)


Author Warren Lehrer crafted a book around Blue’s stories and his story:

The great grandson of a slave owner and his slave, Blue rises through the white dominated spheres of the military, the ministry and academia, then sheds institutional life to become a roaming town crier, street poet and raconteur — fueled by a transformative power of sacred service.


Brother Blue’s “business card.”

Brother Blue’s stories have the spiritual grounding one would expect from an ordained minister. “Storytelling is praying out loud. It’s sacred work,” he says. Stories can overcome hatred and killing with their power to create understanding, he says. “I live for one thing,” says Brother Blue. “To heal this broken world.”


Blue in a classroom, making magic.

Fellow storyteller Kevin Brooks of Malden was inspired by Dr. Hill while a student at MIT. He described him as the father of modern storytelling, someone who sometimes walked around Harvard Square barefoot.

Brooks recalled the way Dr. Hill attracted others during a Shakespearean storytelling event at MIT. At first, most of the audience appeared ambivalent toward the elderly man dressed in blue, but they quickly became engaged when he invited audience members on stage to participate with him.

“The students were speechless,” Brooks said. “After the performance, people just surrounded him, wanting to know more about him. He lived his life as a storyteller, and taught others how to live their lives as well.”

His wife said he made his living telling stories. He didn’t have a “standard job,” she said.

On Tuesday afternoon, shortly before he died, she said he told her a love story.

“He was a generous and kind man, who cared about others.”


In 1999 I was asked to contribute a piece to Aaaaah! A Tribute to Brother Blue and Ruth Edmonds Hill. Since I wrote it, I am going to include the whole thing. It’s called “A Dance of Kalimbas, Blue and Buckminster Fuller.”

Twenty-some years ago, when all my time was free, I festooned myself with kalimbas, and wherever I went I’d play. My thumbs, tender, grew tougher — I could pluck the African instruments’ metal tongues for hours, keeping up a running percussive commentary on the events around me. And, of course, practically all of those events happened in Harvard Square. Eighteen, long of hair and wild of eye, I’d sit for hours on Cambridge Common’s grass, Brattle triangle’s concrete, or on the stone floor of the beautiful echoing entrance to the Harvard Coop, and play, play. One acquaintance sat with me for a while and said “You know, whenever a pretty girl walks by, you play better.”

Well, maybe so, but my very best playing wasn’t sparked by any of them. None of us can remember when it first happened, but looking back, I’m pretty sure it was a weekend afternoon sometime in the late 70’s that I turned the corner towards Brattle triangle, and saw him for the first time. All blue but for bright ribbons and bows fluttering in self-generated breeze, polychromatically parasolled, talking a rainbow streak, leaping up, landing lightly… …approaching, I saw he was shoeless, and his bare feet were taking a beating, but it didn’t seem to slow him down a bit. Children and adults watched in astonishment and delight.

I didn’t need prompting. The minute I heard his rap I was along for the ride. Perhaps he was telling “Muddy Duddy,” about a little boy in love with the earth that gives us life, and my thumbs knew they’d found a friend. I started — and damn, he was fast on the uptake. It took him about half a second to widen his sphere to include my music, and he danced with a life-force that made the air crackle and hum.

From then on it may not have been regular, but it was frequent. Brother Blue and I would encounter each other, and I couldn’t resist his madness. Feeding off my kalimba rhythms, he taught me what it meant to listen widely — for all his unconscious, joyful jammingness, he was an astute performer who, telling tales, turned into a giant antenna picking up vibrations from everywhere. I’d never had anyone respond to my music like that; it was flattering. It would have been frightening, too, except that as I came to know Blue better (and met Ruth Hill, his life-partner and perfect complement) I found in them an ingenuousness, an innocence that seemed to gain strength with the dues they’d paid and were still paying. They never seemed depressed; Blue was always on, and I marveled at Ruth’s wry good humor. They personified a circumstance-transcending grace, and when I played and Blue spun his umbrella round and round, a few molecules of that grace fell on me. When I was around Blue, magic was pretty close to the surface; the world was full of surprises.


“Psssst! Hey brother!”

There he was, sitting, Ruth at his side, in an aisle seat at the Harvard Science Center. Covered as usual with kalimbas, I was on my way to my seat; in a few minutes we were going to hear Bucky Fuller speak. “Hey, Blue!”

“Brother, I’ve got an idea. You know when Bucky was here last year, I told a story for him, and he liked it a lot, and he remembered me. Now the people who organized this event, they asked me to come up at the beginning, and tell a little story about Bucky so that the children in the audience would know who he was. So I want you to play for me.”

Fuller came out, and there were some introductory remarks: somebody presented him with a t-shirt honoring his great-aunt, the pioneering feminist Margaret Fuller, and he put it on over the vest of his three-piece suit. Then the emcee announced Blue, who made his way down to the central stage. I followed, and lifted my large gourd kalimba, which had a beautifully deep tone. After that, I can’t remember a thing, except that I followed Blue as best I could while he made his usual magnificently digressive magic, spinning a web of images and sounds that somehow embodied Fuller’s principle of synergy, riffing loopily on the attributes and character of the man. Then it was over and there was a lot of cheering and clapping, and I dashed back to my seat; this was, after all, Blue’s moment. I was the backup band, and damn happy to be there.

The clapping died down and Bucky took the mike.

“Blue,” he said (I’m remembering now over two decades), “I can’t thank you in words. There are no words that will do the job. The only way I can thank you is by dancing.

He turned and looked through his thick spectacles at me, twenty rows back.

“Come back here, young man, and play some more of that wonderful music!”

I was onstage in a hot New York minute, my thumbs going happily.

“Thank you, Blue!” cried Buckminster Fuller, and he started a freewheeling tapdance ballet, spinning across the stage with the joyous energy of a child. Blue jumped up; the two began a kinetic conversation, Blue leaping, Bucky tapping, both full of light and power and humor and grace, and the strength that comes from knowing the world’s own secret languages. And there I was, nineteen, watching two of the world’s great imaginations pull music from my hands with the force of their dance.

Thank you, Blue!


I’ve known Blue and Ruth for over twenty years. Over that time I’ve had a chance to see them, fearless and joyful, giving their entire selves to sustaining stories for all of us. What I see on their faces is something you don’t see too often. I saw it on the face of the 98-year-old Russian emigre musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky and on the face of the avant-garde composer John Cage; I saw it on the face of the great Hindustani singer Mallikarjan Mansur; I saw it on the face of the South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim; I saw it photographed, on the faces of Ornette Coleman and Dizzy Gillespie and Allen Ginsberg, and on the face of an elderly pacifist tax resister who’d made the IRS back down with the simple power of his pure goodness — and I certainly saw it on the face of Bucky Fuller. It’s a radiance and clarity that come from a life lived in adherence to inner dictates, and from inner dictates charged with love.

Blue and Ruth embody this courage; they live peacefully upon the earth, never violating their principles, always doing not only the right thing, but that which is most right. In a world of compromised visions, commercialized versions, they are real and unadulterated, steeped in mythic and historical understandings, charged with wit from wry to zany, full of levitas as a dragonfly’s zigging and zagging, rich in gravitas as a grove of sequoias.

I am lucky to know them, to have learned from them, to love them.

Warren Senders
Arlington, Massachusetts

I am still lucky to have known them. I am an atheist and I do not believe in heaven or hell, or in an afterlife. But for this man, I make an exception. Brother Blue is immortal.

Brother Blue. Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill. Requiescat in pace.

I knew Brother Blue and his beloved wife Ruth. I met them at a storytelling festival in San Diego about 10 years ago. His stories are fascinating. I’m currently working on one of his stories found in a publication by The National Association of Black Storytellers. The story is “Miss No Name.”

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