Sonny’s Blues By: James Baldwin

After reading James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”, the hurt and anguish illustrated a lasting impression making the story ambiguous in places leaving the reader with questions. There are several parts in “Sonny’s Blues” that indicate, symbolically, that the neighborhood of Harlem is the turmoil of a battle of good and evil. Baldwin wanted to talk about how the symbolism of jazz music is an influence the complexity of human relationships and how the pursuit music can symbolize salvation.

“Sonny’s Blues” is a story about suffering and pain and about how different people experience these emotions and manage to overcome them. Both the narrator and his brother Sonny are real human beings trying to endure the hardships of life and, as a consequence, trying to grow up. “Sonny’s Blues” relates to how the “possession and sale of heroin” in society can cause temporary or permanent damage and suffering. Baldwin endured similar suffering through his lifetime, such as being forced to work ill-paid jobs, living in poverty for eight years, and participating the civil rights struggle. (Cengage)

“Sonny’s Blues” takes place in the same time period as Baldwin was writing in the 1930’s. During this time African Americans began to form a new kind of jazz, later known as “bebop” and later still, as “Hard Bop.” Bebop is a very complex and abstract kind of music that involves chords from the original melody played in blistering speeds. This form of jazz is mentioned in “Sonny’s Blues.” Sonny is a 1940’s blues musician and jazz was the influence that changed his entire life. For example, Sonny asks his brother to hear him play in Greenwich Village bar. There, the narrator accepts the offer “though the nuances of the music and the subtle interplay of the musicians”. The narrator comes to a sublime understanding of Sonny and his importance in music as a release from existential suffering (Baldwin 332).

Jazz is an art form and emphasis centered in the 1930’s by and for black Americans. The blues-jazz motif is significant for Black American life and art. In “Sonny’s Blues,” the story shows how jazz is an eminent way to relieve pain and suffering. For Sonny to get over his addiction to heroin and the critical moments in his life, jazz paves the way to help him express how he feels without speaking. Being a jazz musician and his treatment of Blues coincides beautifully and helps him escapes from the negativity in New York City and his addiction to heroin (Tackach, 199).

Baldwin, being an African American, wrote “Sonny’s Blues” as so it would speak to the black community of New York City. The 1930’s and 1940’s were a terrible time period for black American. The struggle for civil rights often led to addictions and land many black Americans in jail, for example Sonny is arrested for “peddling and using heroin” (Baldwin 319). Between the times that Baldwin lived in New York City and the way Sonny lived in the story, the addiction to heroin explains a typically black stereotype in black communities.

I believe that Baldwin tried to incorporated parts of his successful life that got him where he is today, in the story “Sonny’s Blues”. The narrator is unknown in “Sonny’s Blues,” but is similar to James Baldwin. For example, the narrator is educated as an Algebra school teacher in Harlem and Baldwin went to school in Harlem. (Baldwin 319).

The major aspect of Baldwin’s life that is incorporated into the story “Sonny’s Blues” are the biblical points. Baldwin compared his being unloved by his step father to the biblical character Ishmael. Baldwin would use bible stories as a foundation for his fiction. In “Sonny’s Blues” Baldwin explicates the biblical illusion of the “cup of trembling” glowing and shaking over Sonny’s head as he plays the piano (Baldwin 341). Indeed, religious and biblical themes are the center of Baldwin’s best literary stories and his personal experiences in the Christian church (Tackack).

The main symbolic meaning of “Sonny’s Blues” is jazz. Jazz is the symbolic meaning for Sonny’s need for freedom and to express his feelings that he cannot voice. Jazz has a symbolic meaning of the relationship of the two brothers, the older brother, the narrator, does not understand the “language” of jazz which Sonny wants to use to communicate. As the narrator’s own understanding of jazz grows, so too does his relationship with Sonny.

John Reed Moore, an educated scholar, explains that “Sonny’s Blues” was “unequivocally successful.” Baldwin wrote this short story to give black Americans the freedom of expression and the major themes that conquer jazz music. Baldwin writes “Sonny’s Blues” in first person and made the narrator unknown to bring out the rhythm and Baldwin’s linguistic style to the theme of jazz music. Also, he incorporates some major points from his life into the story as well. In general, “Sonny’s Blues” depicts the freedom of art expression.

Works Cited

Boyd, Herb. Baldwin’s Harlem A Biography of James Baldwin. 4th ed. Vol. 133. NEW YORK: Atria, 2008. Print.

Cengage, Gale. “James Sonny’s Blues Baldwin Criticism.” ENotes – Literature Study Guides, Lesson Plans, and More. Jeff Chapman, 1996. Web. 05 Oct. 2009. <;.

Sherard, Tracey. “Sonny’s Bebop: Baldwin’s “Blues Text” as Intracultural Critique.” African American Review 32.4 (1998): 1+. Print.

“Sonny’s Blues Study Guide by James Baldwin Study Guide.” Book Summaries, Study Guides. Web. 06 Oct. 2009. <;.

Tackach, James. “The biblical foundation of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”” 2007 Marquette University Press – Gale Group, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 6 Oct. 2009.

Tsomondo, Thorell. “NO OTHER TALE TO TELL.” 36.3 (1995): 1-16. EBScohost. Web. 5 Oct. 2009.


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