We think of stories as words, whether spoken or written. But where do those words come from? When the last word is spoken, where do they linger? Where do they live?
Hugh Morgan Hill, loved by many as Brother Blue, died last month at age 88 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I first encountered him on the Cambridge Commons when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s. There was no flyer for an event, no stage, no time of performance, only a slender man dressed in blue, out under the trees telling stories with his whole body. The story I heard him tell that day was one he told many times about a teacher who’d inspired him. I can still hear him rhythmically repeating one of the story’s refrains, “blue eyes, true eyes,” as if it were a song. I can still see the way his hands danced in the air, the way he seemed to be telling the story to me alone.
Some thirty years laters, on tour with The Passion of Mary Magdalen, I was scheduled to appear at Club Passim in Harvard Square. It was a Monday night. The only people there were the host, my husband, my cousin, the act that followed mine, and a man I was sure had to be Brother Blue. When I approached him to ask, he said “Yes, baby, that’s me,” pleased but not at all surprised to be recognized. I told him a little about my book, and then got ready to go on stage.
For this tour (and every one after that)I had decided to depart from the standard reading format. I opened by singing the first three paragraphs of the novel blues style. That night as soon as I started singing, Brother Blue leapt onto the stage and started singing with me–in the voice of Jesus! So I sang back to him in the voice of Maeve (aka Mary Magdalen) and we had a sung, impassioned, improvised lover’s quarrel on the stage. “Baby, you know I love you,” he sang. “But you left me,” I sang back. “I’ve been searching for you all this time.” Words to that effect. It’s not the words I remember so much as suddenly finding myself alive in the story, confronted with a wild, living Jesus.
According to Brother Blue’s wife Ruth Hill, curator of oral history at the Schlesinger Library, Brother Blue was once a struggling playwright. As he described his plots and characters to his friends, he discovered his gift for oral storytelling and for improvisation. I never aspired to be anything but a novelist, but after months of touring and telling stories, I found it strange to go back to the written word. I missed my body. I missed that electrifying-anything-can-happen moment I knew with Brother Blue. That moment where he lived his life, that gift he gave to anyone lucky enough to be drawn, however briefly, into his story.