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.
"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.
This program aired on November 5, 2009.