Baldwin, Hughes and Music

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Music is the centerpiece of many African American writers. It is as if music conveys or helps to convey the expressions that would otherwise be limited to mere words. In certain writing pieces, music is used as a form of healing and redemption. With Langston Hughes' "The Weary Man" and James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," music is a witness to the tone and movement of the writings. Each writer uses music to show forth its power in both the literal and figurative sense.

"The Weary Blues," by Langston Hughes describes an evening of listening to a blues musician in Harlem. This is evident by the infamous Lennox Avenue reference. Hughes uses a somber tempo to provide the reader an appreciation of the state of mind of the blues musician in the poem. The lines "he did a lazy sway, to the tune o' those Weary Blues, with his ebony hands on each ivory key, he made that poor piano moan with melody," (Hughes) highlight this. The musician is delving into the piano with grit as he plays. The blues that is rising from the piano is one of exhaustion and unease.

To the observer who is listening to the musician play, the blues is sad and raggy, but sweet on the ears. This is evident by the lines "he played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool. Sweet Blues! Coming from a black man's soul" (Hughes). The word raggy is not an actual word, however it can be interpreted to be a combination of raggedy and the word ragtime. A kind of patchwork or worn out rhythm. Music is often seen as patchwork as well as it encompasses multiple threads and trends. African American blues music itself is a "patching together of different and disparate influences" ("The Weary Blues"). It is not necessarily a factor that the reader comes to understand that the musician is Black, but Hughes intentionally points that out both as a designation as well as to give reverence to the time in which this poem was written – The Harlem Renaissance.

The mood of "The Weary Blues" is melancholy but uplifting. The reader cannot help but want to submerge themselves into what Hughes is displaying. It is difficult however not to feel what the observer of the musician feels especially with the lines "ain't go nobody in all this world, ain't got nobody but ma self" (Hughes). Hughes shows how the musician is feeling with these lines. Hughes helps the reader to ascertain that the musician is spilling his guts so to speak in the form of music. Music for the musician is healing for his soul. The observer of the musician makes this clear with the lines "I's gwine to quit ma frownin' and put ma troubles on the shelf" (Hughes). The musician is letting his apathy and sadness subside into the keys of the piano.

Many individuals have often noted that music is therapy intervention and healing for the mind, body, soul and spirit. Blues is typically defined as originating from the Deep South of the United States around the end of the 19th century. The form itself is characterized by strong progressions and meaningfully sung. There are specific lyrics to a blues song as it is typically something of a poignant refrain or disheartened ambiance. Hughes understood this and it is palpable in "The Weary Blues." The musician, however, seeks to help himself better understand his troubles through the power of the piano. While he understands in the lines "I got the Weary Blues. And I can't be satisfied. Got the Weary Blues and can't be satisfied - I ain't happy no mo' and I wish that I had died" (Hughes) he understands that there is an importance to getting through one's problems. Hughes provided that revelation with the prior stanza about the musician putting his troubles on the shelf.

As the poem concludes, the musician ceases his blues playing and is satisfied with his expression. The lines "the stars went out and so did the moon, the singer stopped playing and went to bed, while the Weary Blues echoed through his head. He slept like a rock or a man that's dead" (Hughes) can be interpreted as the musician letting all of his sorrows go in the tune he sang and being able to sleep as a result of letting his troubles go. Here, Hughes strikingly portrays how music allows one to let go of whatever is bothering or plaguing them.

Music plays a central role in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” as Sonny opts to become a musician, much to the chagrin of his brother. The story takes place in Harlem as Hughes' poem does, but its central focus is more on the music. Sonny opts to fashion his foray into music after Charlie Parker, who at the time had broken out of the convention jazz forms. Sonny notes that "[Parker] is one of the greatest jazz musicians alive. Maybe the greatest, that's probably why you never heard of him" (Baldwin) when he is talking with his brother, who does not understand why Sonny has chosen to get into jazz. Charlie Parker was and is considered to be one of the most influential improvisationists in the jazz and a central figure in the musical genre ("Charlie Parker").

To Sonny, jazz is all he wants to do. Baldwin here is pointing out the aforementioned revelation that music is universally panned as a healing force. It is difficult to tell from “Sonny's Blues” whether Sonny has had a hard time growing up in Harlem; but what is definite is that he believes jazz music will make him successful and a noteworthy individual in society. This is proven with the lines "I'm thinking about my future. I think about it all the time" (Baldwin). The narrator, who is assumed to be his brother continues to try and convince him that jazz is not necessary and that the musician professional Sonny is choosing is not all it is cracked up to be. Sonny then questions his brother on whether he has a better idea. Baldwin perhaps is stressing the mood of the times that music was believed to be a pointless or rather a nominal money-making profession. Yet, in spite of this, Baldwin's exhibits in Sonny the determination of individuals at the time to pursue their dream.

Sonny is determined to leave school alone for the moment to pursue his music, but his brother suggests otherwise. Baldwin was making a strong statement here to readers that education should be first and foremost. He promoted the same themes in his work, Go Tell It On The Mountain. While musicians have made it before without going to school, education is key especially being an African American at that time. "I ain't learning nothing in school, even when I go. I ain't learning nothing you'd want me to learn," (Baldwin) Sonny adds when he is continuing to discuss his pursuit of music with his brother. Much of Baldwin's point here is to show contrast with the brother's thinking versus Sonny's and how the subject of music can bring tension and discord in spite of its ultimate healing powers. This is somewhat similar to Hughes' in the portrayal of music being both healing but also bringing out pain and anguish as well.

Baldwin puts Charlie Parker as Sonny's hero in the jazz profession as Parker was not rigid in his structure of life. Baldwin appears to link Sonny with Parker. It is as if Sonny sees Parker in himself as far as the improvisational tempo and melody of how one should live life. Sonny is living his life improvisationally and without the rigidity that his brother has as Parker opted to distance himself from the traditional format of jazz music. Parker opted for different forms which is why he became central to the improvisational movement in jazz music.

Baldwin keeps music as the backdrop 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 feels to be his only out. It is the item that will allow him to emerge from his withdrawal from life. Baldwin writes, "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 uses music as a metaphor here likening music to Sonny's disposition as it seen through the eyes of another character, Isabel.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" is the title. It weaves together the entire story in one nice bow. Sonny encounters the proverbial blues with the narrator, his experiences trying to be different in a society that is not readily acceptable of change as well as his interactions with Isabel. The entire story of Sonny is nothing more than a melodic discourse that is meant to show how one wants to be able to decide for themselves and live freely within the composition of their life. Baldwin does a remarkable job of noting these both directly and indirectly to his readers.

Both Hughes and Baldwin underscore how intricate music is to their stories and ultimately our lives. With the help of music, they are able to show how it has different effects on people of all types and that ultimately it has a healing element in it. Both the musician in "The Weary Blues" and Sonny in "Sonny's Blues" believe that music will heal their troubles and in effect take their pain away. The musician in "The Weary Blues" believes that by painstakingly tapping on the keys of a piano that it will melt his melancholy; while Sonny understands that by getting into the world of jazz music and fashioning himself after his idol, Charlie Parker, that he can improvise his life and create something unique from that of the traditional format of both living and music. Both individuals are effectively redeemed by music by each writer. The music allows them to be delivered from their worlds and step into something completely new and different.

Works Cited

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

"Charlie Parker." PBS Biographies. PBS, 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/jazz/biography/artist_id_parker_charlie.htm

Hughes, Langston. "The Weary Blues." Online posting. Townsend Humanities Lab. University of California, Berkeley, 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2013.

http://townsendlab.berkeley.edu/sites/all/files/The%20Weary%20Blues%20%20by%20Langston%20Hughes_0.pdf

"The Weary Blues." UC Davis, 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2013. <http://cai.ucdavis.edu/uccp/workingweary.html