31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 3: “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin

May 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From Going to Meet the Man

All I know about music is that not many people ever hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

Has there ever been a more evocative prose explication of the symbiotic relationship between the effect that music has on its listener and its creator? James Baldwin places those words in the mouth of his narrator, the older brother of the eponymous pianist in his classic story “Sonny’s Blues.”

The title character’s childhood was spent in Harlem, during the period before the Civil Rights movement. Sonny’s Bohemian lifestyle is counterpointed by that of his brother, an army veteran who has become an algebra teacher. The two characters exemplify polar opposites of the African American postwar experience: the elder, a professional who has bought into the assumptions of the dominant culture, the younger an artist who actively resists the strictures of conventional (read: white) society.

When the elder brother returns home on furlough for his mother’s funeral, he tries to convince Sonny to remain in school, despite the latter’s desire to strike out and become a musician. The narrator is unable to understand Sonny’s vocation, reacting to his brother’s artistic impulses with abject confusion. At first, the narrator thinks that Sonny wants to be a drummer: “‘I don’t think,’ [Sonny] said, looking at me very gravely, ‘that I’ll ever be a good drummer. But I think I can play piano.'” The narrator then assumes Sonny is referring to classical piano, and is uncomprehending when Sonny clarifies that he wants to be a jazz pianist:

I suggested, helpfully: “You mean – like Louis Armstrong?”

His face closed as though I’d struck him. “No. I’m not talking about none of that old-time, down home crap.”

“Well, look, Sonny, I’m sorry, don’t get mad. I just don’t altogether get it, that’s all. Name somebody – you know, a jazz musician you admire.”

“Bird.”

“Who?”

“Bird! Charlie Parker! Don’t they teach you nothing in the goddamn army?”

At its most basic level, “Sonny’s Blues” is a story about filial misunderstanding and reconciliation, but Baldwin also wants the story to stand for a more emblematic representation of the black experience in the years following the Second World War. The story’s narrator has capitulated to the establishment’s dictates, first by going off to fight (and possibly die) for his country, then by securing a respectable job teaching young people algebra. Sonny, by contrast, represents the anti-establishment, and suffers accordingly. He remains true to his personal sense of self and his artistic calling, but becomes addicted to heroin and ends up getting arrested for it. “I told myself that Sonny was wild,” the narrator muses, “but he wasn’t crazy. And he’d always been a good boy, he hadn’t ever turned hard or evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem. I didn’t want to believe that I’d ever see my brother going down, coming to nothing, all that light in his face gone out, in the condition I’d already seen so many others.”

What the narrator fails to understand is that, his addiction notwithstanding, Sonny is bound by his calling; further, American society refuses to accept someone who doesn’t conform to a very strict set of societal expectations, the more so if that person is black.

There is irony here, given that the narrator’s uncle died at the hands of a group of drunken white men. The narrator’s mother relates the story the last time her son sees her alive:

Your father’s brother was feeling kind of good, and he was whistling to himself, and he had his guitar slung over his shoulder. They was coming down a hill and beneath them was a road that turned off from the highway. Well, your father’s brother, being always kind of frisky, decided to run down this hill, and he did, with his guitar banging and clanging behind him, and he ran across the road, and he was making water behind a tree. And your father was sort of amused at him and he was still coming down the hill, kind of slow. Then he heard a car motor and that same minute his brother stepped from behind the tree, into the road, in the moonlight. And he started to cross the road. And your father started to run down the hill, he says he don’t know why. This car was full of white men. They was all drunk, and when they seen your father’s brother they let out a great whoop and holler and they aimed the car straight at him. They was having fun, they just wanted to scare him, the way they do sometimes, you know. But they was drunk. And I guess the boy, being drunk, too, and scared, kind of lost his head. By the time he jumped it was too late. Your father says he heard his brother scream when the car rolled over him, and he heard the wood of that guitar when it give, and he heard them strings go flying, and he heard them white men shouting, and the car kept on a-going and it ain’t stopped till this day. And, time your father got down the hill, his brother weren’t nothing but blood and pulp.

That the uncle and Sonny are both musicians remains an unspoken, and most likely unrecognized, connection on the part of the narrator, who nevertheless feels a powerful impact from his mother’s story.

The narrator absorbs the idea that he lives in a society in which drunk white men in a car might bear down on a black man to frighten him, “the way they do sometimes.” The mother’s avowal that the white men’s car “ain’t stopped till this day” is an assertion that racism persists in America, notwithstanding any apparent progress to the contrary. “I’m telling you this because you got a brother,” the narrator’s mother says. “And the world ain’t changed.”

Whether Sonny’s addiction is a product of a racist society is debatable; what is unquestionable is the narrator’s need to protect his brother from the scourges of American life, and his inability to understand why Sonny resists these well-intentioned advances. It is only years later, when the narrator accompanies Sonny to a nightclub to hear him play, that he is able to comprehend the nature of his brother’s talent:

And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.

Music, here, becomes a mechanism for transcendence. As he listens to Sonny play, the narrator is reminded of his uncle’s death, and feels a cathartic release. “And yet I was aware that this was only a moment,” the narrator thinks, “that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.” However, in the apotheosis of Baldwin’s story, the world outside is kept at bay, at least momentarily, by Sonny’s music. Through Sonny’s blues, his brother is able to find not only filial connection, but a kind of solace against inimical and callous life.