The Heart of the Blues

Themes in “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin


“Sonny’s Blues” is a short story about two brothers in Harlem, New York, who are torn apart and finally reunited by jazz. At least superficially, that is. Such a description of course does not even begin to illuminate the intricacies and themes of the story. Baldwin incorporates insights into the power of sibling bonds and the family in general, as well as exploring subtle human conflicts within his setting. Above all, however, “Sonny’s Blues” penetrates to the very core of what jazz and blues (and perhaps all music) is about.

The narrator, who is never named, and his younger brother Sonny come into conflict over Sonny’s dream of becoming a jazz pianist and playing bebop and blues.  The narrator has a conservative mindset and neither likes nor understands jazz.  After going abroad for several years, returning to Harlem, and succumbing for a time to drugs, Sonny finally comes back to his brother a much different person.  His love of and need for jazz, however, remains the same, and he explains the reasons for this to his brother:

“‘It’s not so much to play.  It’s to stand it, to be able to make it at all.  On any level.’  He frowned and smiled: ‘In order to keep from shaking to pieces.'”

Here we see exposed Baldwin’s concept of jazz as a means of staying sane, of creating order in the world around us, an idea which extends to other forms of music and art as well.  Sonny also says that some musicians use drugs for the same reason – “it makes something real for them.”  The music and the drugs are both ways of “trying not to suffer.”  Sonny argues that all people have different ways of doing this, and that “nobody just takes it.”  People are incapable of simply living with the world as it is, and we must therefore use some medium to create a livable version of the world for ourselves.  For Sonny, this medium is jazz – for the narrator, perhaps it is his job teaching algebra, or his wife, Isabel.  Others use painting, reading, writing, gardening, sports; anything that provides a lens through which the world takes on order or symmetry.

Some ways of bringing order are effective, but some are not.  Some have the opposite effect – though they may seem at first to help make sense of things, in the end they only heighten the drowning chaos of life.  Into this category fall the drugs that Sonny was addicted to briefly.  Alcohol is similar:  as G.K. Chesterton said, “Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum.”

So there are things that cannot be used to create order – but what exactly is the problem with them?  Why is it that alcohol and drugs are so destructive, (quite apart from their terrible medical problems they cause) while other activities provide wholesome views of the world?  The answer is that anything that does away with the world completely cannot benefit someone who must live in the world.  The drug addict and the alcoholic return again and again to their substance abuse, not because they want a clear lens to make sense of their environment, but because they wish to leave the world behind them.  They want it all to go away, even if only temporarily.  Sonny describes his experience with drugs by saying that “when I was most out of the world, I felt that I was in it, that I was with it.”  This eventually only plunged him into a greater chaos and despair.

So these are not valid ways to cope with the world, but as J.R.R. Tolkien said, not everything that falls under the designation “escapism” is negative.  Much of what we label escapism is perfectly healthy, because, rather than making the world disappear, it provides a lens or mirror-image, that organizes reality in an alternate fashion.  This is the type of escape that provides hope, that keeps us from “shaking to pieces.”

And it is this type of escape that music gives to Sonny, as well as innumerable other music-lovers since the dawn of history.  In the last part of “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator witnesses a performance by his brother and some other musicians at a night club, and we come to the climax.  This is the point where James Baldwin’s main theme comes out into the open.  He shows us what the blues really are all about.  He shows that their essence is ancient, but that the forms they take are new and always changing.  He shows us that the blues have universal meaning, but are also particular to each person who plays and each person who listens.  “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.”  Here is the heart of the blues.  They provide us with beauty and order to make this world livable, and not only that: just as they bring Sonny and his brother back together in the end, they have the ability to unify people under the one banner of humanity.  The blues make us appreciate our common ground and realize that we all have our sufferings and joys, and we share in this vast, ever-constant, ever-changing heritage of telling stories, of sharing the experience of life.

“Now these are Sonny’s blues.”


© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2014.

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