The Power of Music in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues Essay

The Power of Music in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues Essay

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The Power of Music in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues


At first glance, "Sonny's Blues" seems ambiguous about the relationship between music and drugs. After all, the worlds of jazz and drug addiction are historically intertwined; it could be possible that Sonny's passion for jazz is merely an excuse for his lifestyle and addiction, as the narrator believes for a time. Or perhaps the world that Sonny has entered by becoming involved in jazz is the danger- if he had not encountered jazz he wouldn't have encountered drugs either. But the clues given by the portrayals of music and what it does for other figures in the story demonstrate music's beneficial nature; music and drugs are not interdependent for Sonny. By studying the moments of music interwoven throughout the story, it can be determined that the author portrays music as a good thing, the preserver and sustainer of hope and life, and Sonny's only way out of the "deep and funky hole" of his life in Harlem, with its attendant peril of drugs (414).

The story's first encounter with music is after the narrator has learned of Sonny's arrest. He is thinking about the boys he teaches, and how they could all be "sucked under" (419) just as Sonny has been. He hears their laughter in the schoolyard and notes its "mocking and insular" quality, a noise made by disillusioned youth rather than the untainted, joyous sound one expects of children (410). One boy whistles a tune, a cool and moving, complicated and simple melody, "pouring out of him as though he were a bird," and the music manages to soar above the harsh sounds of disenchantment (410). Clearly this music is joy and salvation. Because he concentrates on this simple music, one boy does not curse and den...


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..., because this tale is "the only light we've got in all this darkness" (438).

"Sonny's Blues" is filled with examples of music and how it makes things better. The schoolboy, the barmaid, the mother, the brother, the uncle, the street revivalists, all use music to create a moment when life isn't so ugly, even though the world still waits outside and trouble stretches above. Music and the tale it tells provide hope and joy; instead of being the instrument of Sonny's destruction, introducing him to the world of drugs, music is his way out of some of the ugliness. For Sonny and the other characters in this story, music is a bastion against the despair that pervades stunted lives; it is the light that guides them from the darkness without hope.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." The Oxford Book of American Short Stories 1992: 409 - 439.

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