The Motifs of Music and the Bible in “Sonny’s Blues”

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“Sonny's Blues” is an eloquent presentation from James Baldwin that depicts the story of Sonny, a passionate individual who is seeking to remove himself from the hardships and obstacles of life. Told through the eyes of the narrator, who is, in fact, Sonny's older brother, James Baldwin, works on two distinctive themes: music and the foundation of faith in being able to both submit to the valleys and smile at the heights of the mountaintops. Throughout "Sonny's Blues," there is a message of peace through music as well as determination to find a balance between the sorrows and joys of life.

Baldwin tells the story through the eyes of the narrator, who happens to be reading a newspaper story. Perhaps, this is the most straightforward manner in which the narrator, Sonny's brother, can reveal to the reader his awe of Sonny. "I read it, and I couldn't believe it and I read it again" (Baldwin), tell of this awe and striking emotion that the narrator receives on a typical ride on the subway. What is perhaps the most telling about the opening passages of "Sonny's Blues" are the natural expressions of meaningful intensity that the narrator reflects the reader? There is a sort of impossibility that Sonny has ended up where he ended up (Byerman). There is, of course, a revelation of sorts as to why the narrator feels the way he does as the story progresses, but Baldwin immediately illuminates a conflict here between the narrator and his younger brother, Sonny.  

The conflict between the narrator and Sonny is how Baldwin unveils the theme of music. Sonny had opted to quit school and fashion his musical skill after Charlie Parker. "Parker is one of the greatest jazz musicians alive. Maybe the greatest, that's probably why you never heard of him" (Baldwin), Sonny states to his brother as he is discussing why he has chosen to follow after Parker. Parker himself was a revolutionary in the world of jazz and thus, Baldwin is saying that Sonny is revolutionary to leave school and study music. Revolutionary, because he was African American and because education was and is a valuable asset to everyone. His brother's astonishment aligns itself with the initial shock that he has in reading the newspaper at the onset of Baldwin's depiction. To Sonny, jazz is what should be practiced and is his ticket out of Harlem. Sonny is hoping to be a successful individual in society, and up until that point, he did not see himself as such.

"Sonny's Blues" deals with music thematically with its cultural connotations as a repository for African American experiences. Through the narrator, the reader comes to understand why Sonny has chosen jazz music, and more importantly, improvisation as the foreground quality to study. Baldwin finds a way to connect music in all kinds of ways in the story such as the improvisational movements of the subway car as it carries Sonny's brother, as well as the unrestricted mobility of Sonny as he seeks to move from Harlem and into the world of unlimited freedom (Sherard). Baldwin deals with the history of jazz and trombonists like Carl Fontana, and blues music and African Americans by unearthing the attitudes of jazz at the time. 

Rather than critique jazz and blues, Baldwin emphasizes the relevance of blues music both in the title and in the economics of the times (Sherard). That is to say that blues music is typically associated with sorrow and melancholic experiences contrasted with the sweet fragrance of optimism. Baldwin here is making a statement about the contrasts of life itself with the simple usage of a word: blues. That blues music is full of light and darkness, as Sonny and the narrator’s lives have been filled with.

Baldwin keeps music as the motif by engaging Sonny with other characters such as Isabel. Sonny resides at Isabel's but has withdrawn himself from the world, which is why music to him is the only way out of Harlem and out of his blues. It is music that will allow him to emerge from his withdrawal from life. Baldwin states, "it wasn't like living with a person at all, it like living with sound. And the sound didn't make any sense to her, didn't make any sense to any of them naturally. It was as though Sonny were some sort of god, or monster" (Baldwin) when describing Sonny and his living with Isabel and the withdrawal. Baldwin writes, "for while the tale of how we suffer and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness" (Baldwin). When Sonny finds his groove in the music, he is no longer withdrawn and forlorn and becomes the expressive individual, a complete self. Baldwin continuously uses the stop-start repetition to disclose the conscious release of despair that Sonny has when he speaks of music. This repetition is common in blues music (McParland; Sanchez) and here again, Baldwin uses the motif of music to portray and inexpressible longing of Sonny to find his excitement in a life that has been tattered and torn. The tale of Sonny’s music will be in his ability to scratch and claw his way out of the misery he is currently in. In addition to music, Baldwin uses the Bible as a foundation for “Sonny’s Blues.”  

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Baldwin’s illustration of “Sonny’s Blues,” is the mirroring of the story of Cain and Abel from the Book of Genesis as well as the parable of the Prodigal Son from the gospel of Luke. Similar to the gospel of Luke, "Sonny's Blues" features two brothers: one who has remained on the conventional path and the younger brother who wants to discover the spice of life (Takach). The narrator has runaway the travesties of Harlem and Sonny wants to do the same. 

The narrator both hates and loves Sonny. He hates him because music became Sonny's downfall both as an addict and as a prisoner. In the story, Sonny was arrested for drug possession and its sale. Yet, in spite of his lifestyle, the narrator, does love his brother and wants to uphold the promise that he made to his mother that he would watch over Sonny. "You got to hold on to your brother and don't let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you get with him" (Baldwin) the narrator's mother says. Despite his promise to care for Sonny, the narrator expresses, 'I pretty well forgot my promise to Mama until I got shipped home on a special furlough to her funeral' (Takach). Through neglect, this is how Baldwin is able to weave in the biblical groundwork of the story of Cain and Abel.  "Sonny's Blues" is a prime story of sin and deliverance (Takach).  The narrator's daughter, whose name is Grace, is another use of the biblical theme. 

When she dies in the story, the narrator finally is able to understand the despairs of life as his brother, Sonny has lived. Unlike Cain, however, the narrator is able to see the possibility of redemption despite Grace's fall. He, in essence, sees Grace's fall and is reminded of his own. This understanding is illuminated heavily after Sonny has been released from prison and the two brothers one Sunday afternoon notice a gospel singer on the street below the narrator's apartment (Takach). Sonny notes that the singer's singing reminds him of "heroin in this veins, warm and cool at the same time" (Baldwin), much to the chagrin of the narrator, who responds by saying that "sometimes you've got to have that feeling to keep from shaking to pieces" (Baldwin). Baldwin here is depicting both the theme of music as well as the theme of biblical foundation. That the power of music is both healings, but that suffering is inevitable as noted both in the Book of Genesis and the gospel of Luke. 

Baldwin seems to tie both themes together in the final scene, "which takes place in the nightclub where Sonny’s band is scheduled to play and culminates with the symbolic drink that the narrator sends to Sonny. [This signifies] redemption is certainly plausible. As the band jams, the music hits something in the narrator [as the] band begins to tell us what the blues were all about" (Takach). Here, Baldwin is portraying both themes, that redemption which is a heavy theme in the Bible; can be found in music. Music is "the tale of how we suffer and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph" (Baldwin). Thus, music touches both the light and the darkness; as there are contrasts in biblical scripture, heaven, and hell; God and the devil; Jesus and Judas.  

The story itself has often been regarded as one of Baldwin's best. At the heart of the story that takes place in Harlem, is that the main character Sonny has seen fit to break from the traditional and pursue his passion for music. Baldwin seems to imply here that goals should be pursued at all costs. Through the motifs of music and the Bible, “Sonny’s Blues” enlightens through poignancy about how dreams sometimes come with derivatives of both positive and negative, light and darkness. 

Annotated Bibliography

Byerman, Keith E. "Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity In "Sonny's Blues"." Studies In Short Fiction, 2003, pp. 367-372. 

Byerman finds that "Sonny's Blues" is replete with music themes and symbols that highlight the emotional states of the characters in the story and illuminate their figurative significance to what he feels Baldwin hoped to achieve with the story. Byerman is unable to note whether what he feels Baldwin sought to achieve with this is actually delivered, but is able to show forth how music is used as a natural expression in many of Baldwin's works.

McParland, Robert P. "To the Deep Water: James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues"." Blues and Jazz, n.d., pp. 131-140. 

McParland seeks to clarify the differences between jazz and blues music as it relates to both the narrator and Sonny in Baldwin's story. McParland likens the narrator to jazz and Sonny to blues and seeks to observe how each individual takes on the musical type that the other initially was. McParland notes that music is the soundscape of "Sonny's Blues" and that without music; Sonny is not able to find his humanity.

Sanchez, Jesus B. "Narrative Voice and Blues Expression in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues." Estudios Ingleses de la Universidad Compultense, vol. 4, 1996, pp. 175-187. 

Sanchez analyzes Baldwin's story by revealing the direct confrontation between the discourse of Sonny's brother and the blues that Sonny's life reveals. Sanchez is able to find a powerful technique of Baldwin through this examination.

Sherard, Tracey. "Sonny's Bebop: Baldwin's "Blues Text" as Intracultural Critique."African American Review, vol. 32, no. 4, 1998, pp. 691-705. 

Sherard's article assesses the story of "Sonny's Blues" as a cultural text in the African American community. Sherard seeks to observe the differences in jazz and blues music as it relates to both African Americans at the time, Baldwin wrote the story; and how cultural attitudes towards both types of music have shifted over the years.

Takach, James. "The Biblical Foundation of James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues". Renascence, vol. 59, no. 2, 2007, pp. 109-118. 

Takach explores the biblical themes of "Sonny's Blues" and underscores it by saying that other writers who have written on the themes in Baldwin's story have missed that prominent theme. Takach uses both the Book of Genesis and the gospel of Luke to explore the narrator's vulnerability and mirroring of  Sonny and weaves together an article that focuses on the contrasts of sin and redemption.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." Going to Meet the Man. New York, NY: Dial Press, 1965. 

Byerman, Keith E. "Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity In "Sonny's Blues"." Studies In Short Fiction, 2003, pp. 367-372. 

McParland, Robert P. "To the Deep Water: James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues"." Blues and Jazz, n.d.,  131-140. 

Sanchez, Jesus B. "Narrative Voice and Blues Expression in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues." Estudios Ingleses de la Universidad Compultense, vol. 4, 1996,  175-187. 

Sherard, Tracey. "Sonny's Bebop: Baldwin's "Blues Text" as Intracultural Critique."African American Review, vol. 32, no. 4, 1998, pp. 691-705. 

Takach, James. "The Biblical Foundation of James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues". Renascence, vol. 59, no. 2, 2007, pp. 109-118.