Saturday, November 7, 2009

From the Middle of Me to the Middle of You - We Will Miss You, Brother Blue

Lately I've been thinking how everything in my whole life has led me to the place where I am now. (Duh.) Everything is suddenly connected. Summer campfires of my childhood; stories, poems & songs that have stayed with me; learning how to sing in the church choir; painting pictures in my parents' basement while listening to recordings of people telling fairy tales on the record player over and over; crashing Memorial Day parades in whiteface; learning from my father that I am part of a long tradition of liars; vivid experiences that I've never forgotten; people who have inspired & touched me...

Brother Blue died this past Tuesday. Jeff got an email from a friend (thanks, Doug) and immediately forwarded it to me: Hugh M. Hill; weaved stories as Brother Blue - The Boston Globe

Twenty-five years ago I was going to a state college out in the middle of nowhere and I was pretty lost career wise. My parents wouldn't let me be a clown (I can't think why not!) so I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had transferred from a small, liberal arts college in my junior year because I thought a bigger school would have more interesting majors. It didn't. It only had less interesting professors.

[Footnote: In my senior year the school forced me to declare a major in order to graduate. I looked at my transcripts to see if I had enough credits in any one subject that would add up to a major and the winner was...English (!) with a minor in...French (!)]

It was the early 1980's. To me, it seemed like the only people who had a well-defined future were the business majors. I didn't really understand what "business" was, but I had this vague perception, whether it was true or not, that all of those people were going to grow up and be stuck in offices for the rest of their lives. In this vast wasteland of pseudo-academic boredom (the guy who taught Shakespeare was a monochromatic, monotone nightmare) there were few glimmers of salvation.

The only class that I remember (I have, thankfully, blotted out most eveything else) was Francelia Butler's Kiddie Lit class, famous as a "boat" (I guess because you could float through it - or did we maybe call it a "gut"?) and it was "taught" (or performed) by an army of TA's (Teaching Assistants) and special guest stars. Francelia herself (I just love saying Francelia!) and around 300 students sat in the stadium-style classroom and watched and laughed. I was very excited to learn from our class textbook, authored by Francelia, that one of my favorite childhood rhymes probably originated right where I grew up. Now that's relevant!

One event was a visit from Margaret Hamilton - c'mon, you know - the Wicked Witch of the West in the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz? She was around 80 years old at the time and she sat on stage and regaled us with stories about green makeup and the hidden trap door that helped her melt into the floor (common knowledge now, but then not so much.) I always remembered Hamilton's visit as a highlight of my college experience, but I had forgotten that this was a Kiddie Lit event until just a while ago when I read Francelia's obit. So all these years later, I'm just now realizing that Kiddie Lit helped save my life!!!!

The next semester I became a TA myself. That was the semester that Brother Blue came to class. Here was this man, dressed like some sort of crazy jester (he has been called a "bedecked, scat-speaking story spinner") who rattled stuff and used his voice like a musical instrument and he told the story of Miss Wonderlick and I was gone, man, solid gone!

Afterwards, we "insiders" were invited for lunch at Francelia's house with Brother Blue and his wife, but I was not really an insider and I didn't think of approaching him. I was too much in awe, and besides, in those days I hadn't yet realized that you are allowed to talk to people that you admire (I still have a hard time with that.) I watched him, fascinated, from the far end of the long table, as he ate his lunch and talked to the folks around him. He was super charged. He was still in costume and seemed unable or unwilling to come down from his performance and talk like a normal person. He talked like jazz music. He was insane. I didn't know what he was. I didn't know that he had a PhD. I only knew that he was Brother Blue with a blue butterfly painted on the palm of his hand.

I rediscovered Brother Blue about 15 years later. Connie Rockman had turned me on to storytelling (thanks, Connie!) and I was running a youth storytelling club. I was at the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee and I saw this guy standing on the main street Connecting With People. It was him. That guy from my past. Brother Blue. I was so excited. Look! It's Brother Blue! Finally I knew what he was - it all became clear. Oh my gosh! He's a storyteller!

Fifteen years older and wiser, I seized the day. I photographed him.

I seem to remember that I introduced myself and told him how much his story had touched me all those years ago. I think that Jeff took our picture together, but maybe that's just a wishful remembrance. If I can find any photos, I'll post them.

So thank you, Brother Blue, for helping to make all my life a circle, sunrise and sundown, moon rolls thru the nighttime till the daybreak comes around. (sing it, Harry) All my life's a circle; But I can't tell you why; Season's spinning round again; The years keep rollin' by.

[Footnote: By this time, I had identified that unknown something inside of me that I had been wondering about. Kind of. Anyway. I think it was Storytelling. Or maybe Collage.] (hee hee)


Jeff Wignall said...

This is such a great story and so nicely written. And what a great tribute to Brother Blue. I'm so glad that I was in Tennessee that day when you spotted him on the Swapping Ground and you got to speak to him.

It takes a long time sometimes for all these pieces of a journey to fit together, but when they do, how fascinating they become in retrospect. (And I'm sure there are kids in Westport, going back as far as the Storytelling Club, who will run into you years from now and tell you how much your storytelling meant to them!)

Keep a butterfly in your palm for Brother Blue.

Reader's Corner said...

Lovely story! I didn't know any of it. And, I love that Harry Chapin song. I am going to find it and add it to my iTunes!!!

Lynne said...

Hello Sister! I love that Harry Chapin song, too, especially the live version. Did that album belong to you or to Scott? Hey-while you're adding stuff to your iPod, go ahead and grab Miss Wonderlick off of Amazon for 99 cents: (It's awesome!)

Lynne said...

Hey JW-I'm glad you remember taking photos. Maybe we'll find them sometime!

B.P said...

123 Auntie lynne i just read most of ur blog and sofar it was great

Param said...

I was interested to see your entry re Brother Blue. I enjoyed his performance on the street once back in about 1989 when I was in Boston for a few weeks. I remember telling Leila about him though I can't remember the story now. A wonderful character.... sad that he's moved on  but a great life.
That's it for now.