James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” draws a historically intertwined relationship between music and drugs. The portrayals of music and its effect on characters throughout the story demonstrate the positive influence it has in life. From how music and drugs are not interdependent for Sonny to how the role of music is vital in defining individuals, as well as their culture, music plays a major motif as a benefit rather than a detriment. Almost everything about Sonny the reader learns through the narrator, his close minded brother, who almost plays more of a father figure than a sibling, expressing his disapproval of Sonny’s desire to play music. Although everybody admits that “Sonny was at that piano playing for his life”, nobody really understands his efforts to create with his music. After failing to meet his family’s expectations, he runs away depressed. Later in the story, the brother narrates that Sonny starts to use drugs.
To the brother, Sonny’s passion for jazz becomes an excuse for his chemical dependence and lifestyle he leads. Or perhaps the world of jazz that Sonny has entered is the danger because without jazz, Sonny never would have discovered drugs. Next, police arrests him for it and send to prison. Sonny drops his addiction and returns to his brother.
Sonny’s only way of expressing his hopes and dulling his pain comes through music, incomparable even to his drug addiction. Sonny’s artistic nature along with his tenacity and willingness to struggle and fail, brings his brother around to see the value in jazz and blues music, alongside himself and his relationship with Sonny. Sonny finds strength in jazz, a genre based on informality, giving musicians space for genuine expression of themselves. Although the actual title reflects Sonny’s life story. Blues music is mostly expressive of melancholic feelings, as well as deep sadness and tragedy, so by entitling the story “Sonny’s Blues” the author defines Sonny’s life with a genre, both so full of grief and sorrow and disappointments. Music evokes emotion from both its performers and listeners, allowing them to cope with failure in their lives or find solace in others who face similar afflictions.
Like the barmaid who finds protection from the struggles in life with music. Dancing and keeping time to “something black and bouncy” playing on the jukebox, she smiles in way that readers see both the naive little girl she never stopped holding onto and the woman struggling to find dignity and purpose in her life. Both sides of her are hidden even further, eclipsed underneath the face of a “semi-whore”. She stares at the jukebox in the cold silence between songs, waiting to renew her life and energy and hope in the next song. Music reveals her true self, not who she has become, not as her life and environment has made her, but who she is on the inside with music as a small salvation.
More moments like this play out in the story. The mother humming a hymn under her breath attempting to comfort herself as she searches for Sonny out on the streets. The hymn giving her the power she finds in prayer and religion as she searches for strength in God to help her child. The narrator whistles to hold back tears as a dam of churning emotions after Sonny refuses his attempts at reconciliation. These tiny bits of music performed by non-musicians demonstrate how music creates good feelings. The mother may sing off-key and the narrator probably whistles flat, but the nature as song infusefuse their small performances with happiness.
Unpacking the major aspects of Sonny’s story helps illustrate his relationships with music. The title exemplifies the atmosphere the author creates for the readers, showing the melancholic struggles of life every character in the story faces. Choosing music for its function to tell the stories of a community, the author shows the humanness of his characters.