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Musical Theme and Structure in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”, Research Paper Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1789

Research Paper

James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” is, on the surface, a seemingly simple tale of two brothers who seek to overcome their years-long estrangement. Despite the relative brevity of the text, however, Baldwin’s take tackles a number of larger issues; the subtexts in the story include everything from the damage wrought by drug addiction to Biblical allusions that provide thematic emphasis to the story’s details. At the core of all of these different themes is a consistent motif that functions like a metaphorical melody line: as Baldwin riffs on a number of musical references, he uses his story of redemption to demonstrate for readers what “The Blues” really means. The Blues is a musical form that, like “Sonny’s Blues,” may seem simple on the surface, but actually encompasses and array of emotions and reflects both the joy and pain of living. In “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin offers readers a portrait of a family that has been torn apart and then brought back together by the healing and redemptive power of the Blues.

The title of the story itself offers a double meaning; Sonny, one of the two main characters in the story, has gone through years of difficulty, from a troubled childhood to the horrors of heroin addiction as a young man. His “blues” are those troubles he has experienced in life and the sadness and pain that come with them. At the same time, his “Blues” is the music that has always given him comfort and a means of self-expression, and that has been the one constant source of happiness in his life even when he had lost the connection to his family. He always loved his brother; that much is clear from the story. This love between the two brothers was not always enough to keep them connected, however, and as the story begins the reader meets Sonny twice-removed, as his older brother reads of Sonny’s arrest on drug charges as reported in the newspaper.

The story moves back and forth through time, much like a free-form improvisational musical jam session. Ideas and themes are introduced only to be swallowed up in the narrative. When they pop up again later in the story their repetition becomes rhythmic and musical, allowing Baldwin to build to the story’s crescendo the same way that a group of musicians might bring a song to a big finish. The structural elements of the story that call to mind the structure of a jam session are reinforced by literal references to music that are sprinkled throughout the narrative. This combination of themes, structure, and musical allusions come together to form a story that is, appropriately, quite lyrical and that serves as a narrative primer on the musical idiom of the Blues.

The central plot in “Sonny’s Blues” involves the narrator, whose name is never offered to readers, describing his life and the strained relationship he has long had with his younger brother, the “Sonny” of the story’s title. Just as a musician might hint at a scrap of melody or begin to intimate a rhythm before settling into the groove of a song, the Brother feeds the details of his and Sonny’s lives out in little bits and pieces, a few notes at a time, before establishing the rhythm that will propel the story to its climax. What we first learn of the two men is that Sonny and the Brother have, for many years, led very different lives. While Sonny pursued the life of a Blues pianist (with, apparently, little economic success) the Brother became a school teacher. These divergent paths begin to come together the day that the Brother learns of Sonny’s arrest for drugs, though it will be some time longer before the two men reconnect in person and resume, or even begin to develop, a fraternal relationship as adults.

From the outset of the story Baldwin introduces musical references. As the Brother attempts to absorb the shock of the news about Sonny, he still must go through the motions of teaching algebra to the boys in his classes. Finally, at the end of the school day, he has a moment to sit alone in his classroom and ponder Sonny’s dilemma. As he does so, the Brother hears the voices of the boys laughing and playing in the courtyard outside, and he realizes that they are about the same age Sonny must have been when he first “ever had horse,” or first tried using heroin. With that realization comes the realization that the boys outside are not so young, are not just children any longer, and the Brother begins to notice the harshness and the edge in their laughter for the first time. He then picks up on the sound of one of the young boys attempting to carry a tune:

One boy was whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through all that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds.

While it may be difficult to say with certainty exactly what Baldwin was trying to convey with this passage, one possible message that could be taken from it is the notion that even in the most difficult of circumstances the power of music and melody can cut through the “harsh, bright air” that surrounds the boys in the courtyard –the same harsh, bright air that not long ago surrounded Sonny as well.

In his essay “The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’” author Richard N. Alpert explores Baldwin’s tale with the eye of a trained musician and musicologist. He describes the musical tradition of the Blues as “a reflection of and a release from the suffering they endured through and since the days of slavery.” As such, the Blues is a distinctly and uniquely African-American musical idiom; though it is not only played by Black people (then or now) it was clearly born from the experiences that Blacks endured through their most difficult times historically. In this sense, then, the Blues can and does reflect the larger experience of being Black in America, while also offering an outlet and means of expression of very personal and individual suffering, as well as personal joy and redemption.

While Baldwin’s use of the Blues as a literary device does not in any way detract from its foundation in the collective experience of African-Americans, he does seem to use it in his story for the ways that it can and does reflect the very personal emotional experiences of the characters. It is not unimportant, necessarily, that the Brother and Sonny are African-American, and it is this cultural heritage that makes the Blues a fitting and apt musical form with which to shine a light on their lives and emotions. At the same time, though, there is nothing in the experiences that drove them apart or that brought them back together that is unique to African-Americans or the African-American experience. The challenges of an alcoholic father, or of family strife, or drug addiction, are all universal experiences that can be felt by and suffered through by, people of all backgrounds.

While Alpert examines “Sonny’s Blues” for specific textual references to music in general and the Blues specifically, author Suzie Bernstein Goldman explores the structure of the story and finds ways that the pacing and rhythm of “Sonny’s Blues” can be seen as metaphorically musical. Goldman picks apart the story to find the core components within it that serve, in her words, as “movements” and “sections,” the same terms a musician or composer would ascribe to a musical composition or performance. According to Goldman, “four time sequences” in the narrative “mark four movements while the leitmotifs” –a musical term that refers to brief, recurring musical phrases- “in this symphonic lesson…are provided by the images of sound” (Goldman, 1974). Goldman makes note of the overt musical references in the text of the story, but is more concerned with how the overall shape and flow of “Sonny’s Blues” resembles a musical piece or performance.

It seems clear from the structure of the story and the specific phrases and words Baldwon chooses that these musical references are all intentional; with that in mind, the primary consideration in this context becomes a question of whether or not Baldwin is successful in this experiment. Alpert points out what he sees as some “possible important thematic or structural flaws that might cause some readers to question whether Baldwin really understood the nature of the jazz/blues motif he used” (Alpert, 1984). Alpert takes exception, for example, with the character of Creole, who is instrumental in bridging the gap between the Brother and Sonny in the final scene. Alpert is concerned that Creole does not adequately represent the African-American roots of blues and jazz, and is instead referential of a musical style that is less deeply-entrenched in the African-American tradition of slavery, the fountain from which the Blues and Jazz would spring.

Alpert’s criticisms, while perhaps factually correct to some degree, may also miss the point. While it is possible that Baldwin could have fleshed out the bandleader character in a way that would have more closely telegraphed the story’s themes, it may also be that Baldwin was simply drawing a character that brought some additional musical context to the story. If the character of Creole does not effectively reinforce the general themes about the Blues and Jazz, he also in no way detracts from it. Such criticisms from Alpert may be an example of a musical expert hearing notes in the “music” of the story that the average member of the audience would not hear, or even realize had been played. Even if Alpert’s criticisms are correct to the degree that Baldwin played a flat note in this scene, it does not detract from the overall message of the song.

What makes “Sonny’s Blues” so effective is the way that Baldwin uses musical imagery, structure, and themes to present his story. There are a number of other themes that, like the tones of different instruments, are sounded throughout the story as well. There are, for example, a number of Biblical references and allusions in “Sonny’s Blues,” from grace and redemption to the allegory of the Prodigal Son (Tackach, 2007). These themes, rather than competing with each other or crowding each other pout, are all deftly woven together like melodies and harmonies, combining to form a work of literature that resonates like a sad and joyful song.

Works Cited

Alpert, R N. “The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.” College Literature11.2 (1984): 178-185. Web.

Goldman, S B. “James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”: a message in music.” Negro American Literature Forum 8.3 (1974): 231-233. Web.

Tackach, J. “The Biblical foundation of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.” Renascence59.2 (2007): 109-118,133. Web.

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