Brother Blue, Cambridge’s Street Storyteller, Dead At 88

Brother Blue appeared frequently on Cambridge Community Television.

Brother Blue appeared frequently on Cambridge Community Television.

The City of Cambridge lost an icon this week: a master storyteller known as Brother Blue.

If you’ve spent time in Harvard Square in the past three decades or so, you’ve probably seen Brother Blue, with a crowd gathered around, telling stories. He stood out of the urban environment in his signature bright blue ensembles.

Brother Blue also told stories in classrooms and jailhouses — anywhere he could find an audience.

He and his wife Ruth produced hours of programming on Cambridge Community Television.
Susan Fleischmann is the public access station’s executive director and says the show, “Street Corner Classics with Brother Blue,” was adored.

“Everybody knew who Brother Blue was, and many of the children who are now in their 20s, 30s and 40s remember him from when they were younger,” Fleischmann said. ” He was just such an iconic character.”

Fleischmann first met Brother Blue in 1974, when he was performing on Boston Common. She says from the get-go he had the power to touch people in a direct, even raw way.

Brother Blue with his wife Ruth at CCTV in Central Square in Cambridge.

Brother Blue with his wife Ruth at Cambridge Community Television. (Courtesy CCTV)

“There was nothing hidden or opaque and he would just put it all out there and try to connect with your soul and always saw the good in people,” she said.

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.

Martin said, on the surface, you might never suspect that Brother Blue, aka Hugh Hill, was a Ph.D. He graduated from Harvard, no small feat for a black man in the ’50s, and served in World War II.

Brother Blue’s experiences colored his craft, Martin said. The storyteller always spoke truthfully about what’s going on in the world today. “He could talk about it allegorically, he could talk about it directly, but the bottom line was he was engaged, he was animated,” Martin said.

Listen: Brother Blue and Ruth on StoryCorps


Brother’s Blue animated spirit was complimented by his wife’s. He and Ruth engaged each other in 2006 in the WBUR series StoryCorps:

Brother Blue: Every story I tell is from my heart. I want to heal the heart of this broken world.

Ruth: Do you ever wish that you had a different kind of life? That you weren’t a storyteller?

Brother Blue: No, I’m … I don’t know. There was a call all my life, you can’t resist a call. You have to do it — or die.

Brother Blue died at home in Cambridge on Tuesday at the age of 88. He is survived by his wife, Ruth. As a remembrance, Cambridge Community Television will broadcast his monthly program “Street Corner Classics With Brother Blue” in December.

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  • Norah Dooley

    We thank Brother Blue for all his gifts to us… especially the fire to tell stories. That fire will always burn in our hearts and live in our words.

    He whom we loved
    and is now gone
    is no longer where
    he once was.
    He is now wherever
    we remember him.
    - St. John Chrysostom


  • David

    Is there going to be any kind of public remembrance of Dr. Hill? He touched so many through the years. Thanks.

  • Andrea Karis
  • Gary

    I have met Brother Blue many times since the early 70′s and have even invited him to tell stories to groups on several occasion, he was a unique, brilliant, and utterly fastinating person who could relate to anyone. I will miss him.

  • Stewart

    Brother Blue and his wife, Ruth Hill, attended our wedding in 1975 in Appleton Chapel in Harvard Yard. True to character and festooned with his trademark butterflies, he sang a beautiful little prayer from “the middle of me to middle of you” while he accompanied himself on the blues harp. Later that day, he performed at our reception, where he enthralled the children and adults alike. A few years later, I invited him to a school in Connecticut at which I was then teaching to give a workshop on storytelling. He and Ruth stayed with my wife and me in our small apartment. In the middle of the night, Blue got up to use the facilities and we glimpsed him as he passed by our room. Even his pajamas were blue and were covered with butterflies! A lovely man who remained true to his calling right to the end. We felt privileged and inspired to have known him.

  • Michael Franco

    Brother Blue did not simply tell stories or recite poetry: He was the Tale. He Was Poetry.
    Moving Everything moved in the air through him to become Brother Blue- He stood
    a matador before inspiration side-ways dancing dare arm extended finger softly pointing slight knowing smile waiting

    His deep grace, devotion, dear Heart and Soul moving across the literary landscape
    his light-step pulling from its very root

    waiting as he always did
    for that Word he needed that
    needed him
    that would begin again the tale of the Tale he had in placing himself in its path come to tell

    Behind him as he goes we are
    now as always
    somehow better somehow lighter

    “if you want me again look for me beneath your boot-soles” Walt Whitman wrote
    “I depart now as air”

    As for me I’ll check my shoe
    and hope to find in one of the small cracks
    in its sole at least
    A bit of Blue

    Michael Franco
    Friday Morning November 6th 2009
    Somerville Ma

  • Nina Alonso Hathaway

    Brother Blue was one of those rare and special people who build bridges where other people see only gaps and chasms they have no idea how to cross. He had a charm, humor, candor, vision and sense of fun that not only can’t be categorized, but shouldn’t be, as categories are hobgoblins of both little and big minds sometimes. His stories were unpredictable, rhapsodic, playful, serious, curious and deeply touching. His good work goes on. He transcended many barriers, including race and age, melted them, showed us they really didn’t matter as much as some people seem to think. Bless him and his wife, who supported him, kept him company. I didn’t know him personally, but saw him so many times in Harvard Square over the years.

  • http://N/A Rita Cox

    I am saddened by the death of my friend an fellow storyteller Brother Blue. He shared his love, his wonderful gifts and inspirational stories with us in Toronto, Canada, and has left precious memories of his unique performances , his beautiful spirit, butterflies and all . My sincerecondolences to Ruth and our Storytelling family. Love Rita Cox

  • Alarra(Berry) Hewstan

    In June of 1976 I invited Brother Blue with the Guru Blanket Band to come to the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat) in Vancouver, B.C. Canada. Brother Blue told his stories and sang his songs and danced his butterfly dances, he shared his magical love of stories with children of all ages, he was amazing, and blessed and was apart of the greatest story ever to take place in the city of Vancouver. He attended with his loving wife Ruth,and for 3 weeks every day he would circulate amongst the attendees bringing joy and happiness as he roamed. He was with many other notables who attended plenary sessions such as Pierre Trudeau,Margaret Mead,Mother Teresa, Buckminster Fuller…
    The chief of the Hopi Indian Tribe performed healing ceremonies for the earth,
    And in Brother Blues grand and glorious style, he captivated people from all over the world and shared his light, his heart, his blessings…my father’s spirit just left this earthly world on october 1st, a truly magnificent being, like Brother Blue he told stories too..now I can feel them both up in heaven sharing stories,and jokes and songs.. My dad was 95 and I know he and Brother Blue are singing.

  • http://www.wbur.org/2009/11/05/obit-brother-blue Larry

    I used to listen to Brother Blue when he would come to the Peabody School in Cambridge every Friday. We used to make fun of him because of the stories he told. He would keep us entertained for hours. As a kid I didn’t realized that he had a PhD from Harvard. It’s funny I thought he was homeless. But when he never asked for money it kind of surprised me. So I found out latter as an adult he was a graduate from Harvard with a PhD. We will miss you Brother Blue. My you continue your story telling in the great big blue sky.

  • Hon. Jean Augustine

    Brother Blue visited us in Toronto for the Kumbayah Festival and wowed us all with his stories, butterflies and generally congenial manner. I still remember his character these many years. May he rest in peace surrounded by beautiful butterflies.

  • amy

    thank you brother blue for being so beautiful in the memories of my childhood. you will live forever in my memories, thank you thank you thank you…..

  • http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/mannyngharp1 Kathryn Mannyng

    Sorry to hear of his passing. I already moved away, and missed seeing him at the Harvard Square Post Office, or on the street, or waiting for the T. Cambridge won’t be the same.

  • eric

    What a great loss. My brother and I remember him standing on a snowbank in the square after the blizzard of ’78, a slender tower of intelligence and humor and humanity. We will miss him.

  • David D

    I first met Brother Blue outside the WBZ TV studio in the 70s when he had a TV program on Channel 4. I was a child and his Blue clothing and the balloons he tied to himself fascinated me. As I grew older, I would see him in Harvard Square now and then and I would listen to him. I remember one evening that he and a colleague stood in the square and his colleague recited a Shakespeare play verbatim, while Brother Blue Riffed on the play and together the told the whole play.

    Many years went by before I met him again. I was attending a healing circle in Bedford and Ruth and Brother Blue also attended. On the birth of my daughter, Brother Blue made a tape of a story for her which is very special to me and my daughter.

    You will be missed Brother Blue, but whenever I see a butterfly, or walk through Harvard Square I will be reminded of you and your gift to us all. Thank you.

  • http://ethnicartscenter.org Dora Kalajian Tevan

    I’ll never forget the car ride with my Dad and you and Ruth, and how you brought lightness, laughter, and respect to a 60 hour a week Harvard Square Meat Cutter, how he was overjoyed to share you with me as I was starting my brotherhood work, how you lived in the moment and spontaneously made up affirming rhymes. Your realness and ability to present heavy topics in the most feather-soft ways opened people’s hearts. Brother Blue, the Ethnic Arts children and I live out your dreams when we are grateful and live in the moment, just as babies do. Bring and receive joy with my Papa in heaven.

  • Roseann

    Thanks for this great tribute to a great man who I saw often when I passed through Harvard Square on my way home to Arlngton. Thank you Brother Blue and your loving wife Ruth for all the kindness and peace you brought into the world. Rest in Peace.

  • http://www.wbur.org/news/wbur/people/aphelps Andrew Phelps

    This story’s comments thread made it into our inaugural “Your Voice” segment on Morning Edition: http://www.wbur.org/2009/11/11/your-voice

  • Fred Austere

    I first encountered Brother Blue in the lobby of Norhteastern’s Blackmun Auditorium before a perfoemance by Sun Ra’s Arkestra. He was performing a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” with John Gilmore (Sun Ra’s longtime tenor sax player) providing accompaniment. I came in midway through and have no idea how it started, but there were a couple dozen of us standing around in rapt attention. When the doors opened and the audience filed in, Brother Blue was in the seat next to me. I said “that was fantastic” or words to that effect, and he graciously thanked me and we watched the show. It was maybe four or five months later and I saw Brother Blue performing in Harvard Square. I sat down on that big cement bench at the corner of Bratlle Street, joining the maybe four of five other people watching. As he was deciding which story to do next, Brother Blue pointed at me and said “we’ve met before, haven’t we?” I replied “Yes, at the Sun Ra concert” “That’s right” he replied. He started to do Romeo and Juliet but then looked at me and said “Oh, wait, you’ve heard this before” and went into something else. It was always a pleasure to stop and listen for any length of time. Even just passing him and his wife in the street brought a smile.

  • Curious

    My mother used to take my sister & me from the ‘burbs to see Brother Blue perform whenever/wherever possible. Later, I got to dance with him at a Sacred Dance Guild conference.
    Love for Brother Blue was something that brought diverse people together. Being a Brother Blue fan is like being a member of a magical club.

  • Jeanne Marie Penvenne

    Hugh Hill, Brother Blue, and his beloved wife Ruth Hill brought color, warmth, art and word play to many generations in Pittsfield, Cambridge and well beyond. I was blessed to know them both since the mid-1960s.

    I smile to think I was at first a bit afraid and intimidated by Brother Blue — he helped me laugh, have fun and play. Ruth was the center of his marvelously rich life, may she always be surrounded by love. JmP

  • http://www.guydavis.com Guy Davis

    BROTHER BLUE 7 November 2009

    I first saw Brother Blue in 1979 at the Cambridge River Arts Festival. I was playing an acoustic guitar atop the kiosk in Harvard Square, when I saw, on the street below me, a peculiarly dressed fellow. He was dressed in Blue from head to foot, with ribbons and balloons tied to his arms and legs. He was an older man but not like others. He had a lean, youthful muscularity and a smile that shone like the sun. The word “charisma”, comes to mind. In his hand was a tamborine which he began to tap as I played. Something about him made me want to be near him. The next thing I knew, he was up on top of the kiosk with me. That’s when I noticed his feet were bare. We became fast friends. I met his darling wife Ruth later.
    Sometimes, his voice sounded like Louie Armstrong. His stories enchanted me. My favorite story was “Muddy Duddy”. Many years later I got to tell that story to a group of folks at the United Nations.
    Godspeed, my mentor, my master, my friend Brother Blue. Bittersweet tears fall from the middle of the middle of my heart. Oceans of love traveling through my fingers go to Blue’s Missus; Ruth, my ma.

    Love always,
    “Muddy Duddy”
    Guy Davis

  • http://www.TonyToledo.com Tony Toledo

    Requiem for Blue by Tony Toledo

    He was the original Blue man.
    He was the Street Poet.
    He was the Holy Fool.
    Story made flesh.
    A heart open to the world.

    A timeless minstrel.
    Finder of the one true note.
    A happy accident.
    A knee jerk flirt.
    Nonlinear in a funny sort of linear way.

    Born a grown man fully clothed.
    Ageless and energetic.
    In love with his lady, his angel.
    Way way beyond beyond a free spirit.

    Once upon a time ago, once upon a rhyme ago…
    Harmonica’s mournful wail ago
    Degrees in his pocket
    stories on his tongue

    Arms open wide
    Hugging the world
    How the world hugs him.

    Now he lives in the wind.
    Now he travels in the shade.
    Romeo, Romeo where art thou?

    Now his stories echo, echo, echo.
    A bit of Blue in every word.
    Fly on, Blue, fly on.

    A butterfly on the breeze.
    Such a kiss lasts forever.

  • http://www.narmad.com Chandu Shah

    Brother Blue was an integral part of Harvard University Sanskrit Department Outreach activities and lecture series as well as annual Indian poetry reading sessions conducted by Prof. Bijoy Misra; He was a family to all of us. We will miss his presence and blessings at all our future meets.- Chandu Shah_poet.

  • Cynthia Cohen

    During the decade of the 80′s I directed the Oral History Center based in Cambridge. Ruth Hill was the chair of our board, and she and Brother Blue faithfully attended monthly meetings for the whole ten years I worked there. Brother Blue’s contributions, if sometimes quirky, were always poetic, and always nudged us back toward the highest purposes of our project. His loving and gentle philosophical flights were balanced by Ruth’s patient and steadfast groundedness. They were bedrocks of the Center’s work in Cambridge communities and schools. I’m sure all those who participated in The Center over those many years would join me in holding Blue’s spirit in the light of our gratitude, and in sending Ruth our love.
    Cindy Cohen

  • http://www.freewebs.com/buryinggroundstours Covalence2

    Blue and Ruth were the sunshine in any day. I was going through difficult times at one point, and he somehow knew and started one of his “just for you” stories, in the middle of the Square, that lanced the pain and brought both tears and smiles after.

    We both had “street IDs” and he would always smile when he saw me otherwise attired, as if we shared a secret.

    I have always thought of Ruth as “St. Ruth” for her sure hand on the tiller of their shared lives. Bless them both.

  • Karen L

    I met Brother Blue in a small library in Cambridge, MA. He had a direct impact on my life. By making going to the library on days he was there, he showed all of us (children) that reading could really be fun. The stories he told were always interesting, thought provoking and often funny. He was loved by many and his legacy lives through all of those who knew him and those yet to know him. I know I will carry his spirit with me and pass it on as I can. I am in Arizona and work in a school. Story time is important to the special ed kids I work with.
    Bless Brother Blue and deepest sympathy to Mrs Hill.

  • Bill Wraith

    Around 1976 or so, I was on a bus crossing the Harvard Bridge from Cambridge to Boston late at night, around 1AM, with my girlfriend at the time, Debbie. I was a student at MIT, and my girlfriend was a student at Wellesley. We just happened to sit next to Brother Blue and Ruth. He immediately engaged us in a conversation. Somehow, it came out I played classical guitar, and he wanted me to play a piece, Estrellita, by Manuel Ponce, on his radio show, while he made up a story. We did exactly that. I can’t remember exactly when, but somewhere along the way before or after the show, he visited my fraternity house, where he had a dozen of my fellow fraternity brothers fully engaged listening to a story or two, his storytelling philosophy, ideas about oral history, examining his “Rainbow Book” of empty colored pages. Engineering people we were, but we enjoyed his visit, his stories, and his momentary but heartfelt friendship. I’ve never forgotten him or Ruth after all this time. He was a wonderful entertainer and storyteller, and he exuded intelligence, warmth, and friendship.

  • Ralph Palasek, Arlington, Virginia

    Decades ago in Denver, Colorado I was astounded and captivated by a street-wise hipster tellling a fairy tale version of MacBeth on Public Radio. Just recently, in the weeks before Thanksgiving I was searching the web unsuccessfully for “Mister Blue” or “Father Blue” to reconnect with the man who brought me such a profound human experience of Shakespeare’s bloody warrior king. This morning on Public Radio, during a program on Kwanza, I was informed of “Brother Blue’s” recent passing. Wow! When he told you a story, you were sure to keep it–always.

  • http://phyllisgreenleaf@gmail.com phyllis taub greenleaf

    When I became a clown, a 4 year old boy gave me the name Sister Green. Then I met brother blue telling stories in Harvard Square……Later still Sister Green clowned at Brother Blue’s story gatherings……Blue and Ruth became personal friends of mine….At my 41st birthday party Blue improvised a magical tale about Sister Green the Rainbow woman…..Im crying now realizing that Blue is no longer alive…..and Im remembering being in Blue’s Story telling class at the Harvard Divinity School…Before class, Blue would wash all of our feet with warm water…
    He blessed us with his enormous heart and deep universal inclusive human spirit….I treasure all the times I got to be with Brother Blue and Ruth.

  • Piano Man Larry Hunt

    Part 1. Brother Blue was a spiritually advanced person. A unique performance artist full of Love and compassion which radiated from him. Here’s my story of Blue: I moved to Boston in 1976 when I was 21. For a few months I experienced seeing a diverse group of street performers in Harvard Square in Cambridge: acrobats, musicians, actors, clowns – you name it. One afternoon I saw Brother Blue and thought “now this is the strangest person I’ve seen out here yet”. As a listened to him and watched him I realized how he profound, unique and beautiful he was. Soon I was mezmerized by him and so was everyone else there. His semi-spomtaneous and improvised stories captivated people of ALL ages.

  • Ravenhammer

    My heart bleeds, this loss can not be measured, the world is a sadder darker place without him.   Good journey Brother.

  • Ramona King

    Hello Tony. This is Ramona King from New Mexico. Next Saturday I’m putting up a storytelling performance at New Mexico’s Outpost Performance Space. http://www.outpostspace.org. I called on a few tellers to perform stories in their unique styles. There is a woman here, Linda Rodeck who specializes in an art called action theater. Her work is embodied and reaches deeply into the core. She is a most humble who relies on the energy of the moment. I saw her perform a few times and often thought of Brother Blue. I introduced her to his work and stories and asked if she would perform a piece with me to open the show…it’s our attempt to open with a blessing from blue…calling on all he has left us with and has touched our lives. Here in the southwest on the stage where blues, jazz, and world music is normally expressed the owner of this venue wanted to take a chance on something new. He called on me to pull together a group of tellers for an evening of storytelling. It only seemed appropriate to come up with something that exudes the Father of Modern Day Storytelling Brother Blue. Linda and I are still working out the details for what will happen on stage but she and I both know what ever happens out there has to come from the moment opening to the present of each and every new direction that would reveal itself while at the same time releasing ourselves to something new that will infuse the old. In short, I’m feeling a bit nervous about …sometimes feeling scared. Brother Blue was big…and now even bigger. It would be such an honor to experience his wisdom in the event. We are focusing on life journeys in this storyteller’s showcase. In short, I was moved by your poem and wanted to know if we could use it in the opening when I give a brief background on brother Blue. …maybe place as an insert in the program as people walk in. Let me know. You can find me on facebook….www.facebook.com/RamonaKingStories. Thanks so much for sharing. Oh yes, our event is called StorySpace:Albuquerque Storyteller’s Showcase. The event page is on Facebook as well. The Event is on Saturday, April 27, 2013

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