Today’s unit is a continuation of last week’s look at lyrical poetry and its relationship with modern jazz, blues, and rap music. As you read “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, I want you to continue to consider the powerful ways in which music allows use to express ideas and emotions in ways that words cannot. Take what we learned last week about the blues, including its history, its lyrical structure, and its common themes and apply it to Baldwin’s story about a troubled young jazz and blues pianist. How does the blues allow Baldwin to express the difficult life that Sonny faces in this story?
James Baldwin’s Biography
Watch the following biography from Bio.com on Baldwin’s life, literary works, and political activism. In particular, notice his influence during the Civil Rights Movement in America. Think about how “Sonny’s Blues” depicts some of the issues that leaders of the Civil Rights Movement like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stressed during this era.
Themes in “Sonny’s Blues”
Blues and Jazz Music and Human Expression
Through Sonny’s character, Baldwin explores how music can give an individual the power to express themselves in ways that they may not otherwise be able to articulate in words or perform as actions. Almost everyone would agree that music has this power, so what makes Baldwin’s story profound is how he portrays a particular form of music and how it gives a voice to a specific population of people, young African-Americans. Early in the text, the narrator and Sonny have the following exchange during a flashback to their youth:
“No,” he said, very sober now, and afraid, perhaps, that he’d hurt me, “I don’t want to be a classical pianist. That isn’t what interests me. I mean”-he paused, looking hard at me, as though his eyes would help me to understand, and then gestured helplessly, as though perhaps his hand would help-“I mean, I’ll have a lot of studying to do, and I’ll have to study everything, but, I mean, I want to play with-jazz musicians.” He stopped. “I want to play jazz,” he said. Well, the word had never before sounded as heavy, as real, as it sounded that afternoon in Sonny’s mouth. I just looked at him and I was probably frowning a real frown by this time. I simply couldn’t see why on earth he’d want to spend his time hanging around nightclubs, clowning around on bandstands, while people pushed each other around a dance floor. It seemed-beneath him, somehow. I had never thought about it before, had never been forced to, but I suppose I had always put jazz musicians in a class with what Daddy called “goodtime people.”
“Are you serious?”
“Hell, yes, I’m serious.”
He looked more helpless than ever, and annoyed, and deeply hurt.
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! Charlie Parker! Don’t they teach you nothing in the goddamn army?”
I lit a cigarette. I was surprised and then a little amused to discover that I was trembling. “I’ve been out of touch,” I said. “You’ll have to be patient with me. Now. Who’s this Parker character?”
“He’s just one of the greatest jazz musicians alive,” said Sonny, sullenly, his hands in his pockets, his back to me. “Maybe the greatest,” he added, bitterly, “that’s probably why you never heard of him.”
In this passage, Baldwin shows how the genre of music influences the kind of ideas and feelings the musician can express. Sonny doesn’t want to play classical, or even the jazz of the previous generations. Instead, he wants to play a newly emerging form of jazz, sometimes categorized as “Beebop”. Unlike the smooth, more tranquil and up beat forms of jazz (like that of Louis Armstrong), Beebop was more experimental and aggressive. This would be the same as how older generations disliked the emergence of rap in the 80s or grunge rock in the 90s because the more loud and discordant sound gave voice to the anger of the new generation. Thus, the qualities of this genre of jazz mirror the kinds of feelings he want to voice, including his frustrations with racism, poverty, and drug addiction.
Take a listen to Sonny’s idol, Charlie Parker.
What kinds of emotions does Parker’s music make you feel? How might the frantic and chaotic nature of this music speak to Sonny’s soul given his troubled past?
Since we have already covered the blues as a genre, you probably have a good idea of how Sonny’s life fits into the typical issues engaged in a blues song. Toward the end of story, when the narrator watches Sonny play, he mentions that Sonny’s band plays the following jazz standard, “Am I Blue?” Here’s a clip of the legendary Billie Holiday singing it, with the lyrics reproduced below.
without a warning I found he was gone
How could he do it
Why should he do it
He never done it before
am I blue
ain’t these tears, in these eyes telling you
How can you ask me “am I blue”
why, wouldn’t you be too
if each plan
with your man
done fell through
when I was his only one
but now I’m
the sad and lonely one…lonely
now he’s gone, and we’re through
Am I blue (Azlyrics)
As you listen to the song, consider how the lyrics could apply to Sonny and his life. Furthermore, consider the scene at the end of the story as the narrator hears Sonny play and he suddenly starts to understand his younger brother’s love of jazz:
“Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. 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 had made it his, and 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. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.”
What exactly is it about the music that makes the narrator understand his brother after years of being disappointed with him? Why does it give him flashbacks about his own past and how does the music suddenly cast his memories in a new light?
The Struggles Faced By Young African American Men
As we know from the beginning of the story, the narrator is a teacher who works in Harlem, a predominantly African-American neighborhood in New York. While the narrator has been able to find a successful career and make something of himself, he understands that his students face several barriers due to the race and socioeconomic status. In comparing his brother, Sonny to the students he teaches, the narrator states:
I couldn’t believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know. I had had suspicions, but I didn’t name them, I kept putting them away. I told myself that Sonny was wild, 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. Yet it had happened and here I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them for all I knew, be popping off needles every time they went to the head. Maybe it did more for them than algebra could.
I was sure that the first time Sonny had ever had horse, he couldn’t have been much older than these boys were now. These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.
As a math teacher, the narrator is aware of several of the social problems that his students face, which will inevitably cause some of them to go down the same troubled road as his brother. He blames this on the rage caused as “their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities.” What do you make of this metaphor of a low ceiling that limits their possibilities? How might the problems that black youth faced in the 50s be causing this ceiling? Think about issues like segregation, housing discrimination, and voting discrimination that the Civil Rights Movement campaigned to end. Why is it that frustrations with these issues that limit their lives, including racism and poverty, might lead them into drugs and crime like Sonny? Is Baldwin being sympathetic to them? How so?
Along with Baldwin’s gripping portrayals of the struggles African Americans faced in the 50s due to racism and limited opportunities to raise their class standings, “Sonny’s Blues” is also a story about brotherhood that transcends race, class, and culture.
Think about what “brotherhood” means as concept. What do we expect from a brother? How has the idea of the brother relationship been used to describe other kinds of relationships? For example “fraternity brothers” are not blood brothers, but they share a bond. We often talk of a “brotherhood of man” when we discuss peace and emphasize our shared humanity. In all usages, brotherhood implies an obligation to help and support others.
You have probably heard the famous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper,” that Cain responded to God with in Genesis when God asked him about the whereabouts of his brother Abel. So, in the Bible, the first ever brothers didn’t get along too well and saw themselves as rivals, but clearly the point of the story is to show that one does have an obligation to one’s brother.
So with this in mind, should the narrator be asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Does the narrator have a moral obligation to look after his brother? Why or why not? Does the narrator feel that way? Consider their shared backgrounds growing up in a difficult family environment and enduring the passing of their parents. In a particularly moving scene, the narrator’s mother tells the story of the death of his uncle as a possible hate crime:
“He never mentioned it,” she said, “because I never let him mention it before you children. Your Daddy was like a crazy man that night and for many a night thereafter. He says he never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone away. Weren’t nothing, weren’t nobody on that road, just your Daddy and his brother and that busted guitar. Oh, yes. Your Daddy never did really get right again. Till the day he died he weren’t sure but that every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother.”
She stopped and took out her handkerchief and dried her eyes and looked at me. “I ain’t telling you all this,” she said, “to make you scared or bitter or to make you hate nobody. I’m telling you this because you got a brother. And the world ain’t changed.” I guess I didn’t want to believe this. I guess she saw this in my face. She turned away from me, toward the window again, searching those streets.
How do you interpret the mother’s explanation for telling the story, that “you got a brother. And the world ain’t changed”? Is she trying to convince the narrator that he has an obligation to look after his brother? If so, then how does confronting racism make his obligation to his brother especially important?
Finally, in your own opinion, is it inherently the obligation of the older brother to be the younger brother’s keeper? Is there anything a brother can do to void the kind of obligation they have to one another? Because Sonny is a criminal and a drug addict, would it be ethical for the narrator to abandon him? Does he consider this? Why or why not?