November 15, 2009

Farewell, Brother Blue

Brother Blue has died.

I knew of Brother Blue's reputation long before I ever met him. I couldn't quite meld the images of him that my mind created from hearing about him. About being a barefoot street performer in Cambridge. About storytelling in jails. About having a Doctorate in storytelling. About running a longstanding open mic storytelling series, that apparently every storyteller in New England had acknowledged as the place to tell.

Beginning in 1999, I began to encounter Brother Blue at storytelling conferences. I couldn't help but notice him. He was usually the first one in the audience to speak at the end of a workshop or panel discussion, often without waiting for an invitation for feedback. He'd stand up, and in a powerful voice address the speaker, sharing his experience of what he had just heard-- and his experience usually found a connection to the sacred calling of storytelling, its connection to soul, and he'd find a metaphor or Homeric turn of phrase to express his appreciation for what he'd just heard (even if the session was on something as mundance as a case study of knowledge management and oral history initiatives at NASA). He played the fool-- not to be a buffoon or a jester-- but to break through the formality in a room, to push the awareness and conversation to another level.

I only ever heard one story from Brother Blue, but it made a lasting impression. Four years ago (he would have been 83 years old) at a storytelling conference, late at night, a handful of us gathered in a dormitory lounge to swap stories. Blue was there, and he told. His words poured out like he was directly channeling the muses, and the musicality and verbal acumen with which he spun his fable was astonishing. To me, it was like witnessing Lord Buckley in the guise of an evangelical preacher.

I've been reading remembrances of Brother Blue this past week, by those who knew him well and those who encountered him only briefly. Here's a few I'd recommend:

If you never had the chance to meet Brother Blue, here are a few videos, so that you can get a glimpse of this man.

via Kevin Brooks:

via Cambridge Community Television: a street performance from Brother Blue