Joel Clay Blog
Stories That Haunt: “Sonny’s Blues” (1955)
I first read James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” ten or so years ago during a period of anthologized short story binge reading. Of the many collectively praised short stories, “Sonny’s Blues” stood out to me. So I revisited it. And I revisited again, and again. At first I had difficulty identifying the core of what moved me. The story covers so much; it is about familial conflict, racial oppression, survival, purpose, vocation, addiction, redemption, but I believe the core of what haunted me can be narrowed to the brilliant development of two themes: 1. The complexity and burden of an older sibling’s responsibility to a younger sibling; 2. The struggle and beauty of identifying and pursuing one’s calling.
The strongest motif, perhaps, is racial oppression. I don’t feel qualified to address that issue effectively here, but I must note that it touches all facets of the story, charges it with tension, increases the stakes of the brothers’ relationship and Sonny’s battle with the piano.
I think it’s important to establish whose story “Sonny’s Blue’s” is. Though it moves around Sonny, his name is in the title, and we don’t even learn the name of the narrator, this is the narrator’s story. He is the one whose internal conflict we witness and who experiences bittersweet enlightenment at the story’s conclusion.
Readers can often agree on a what is a good story, but personal experience can elevate the potency of a story to a reader. As an older sibling to brothers, the narrator’s struggle connected with me on many levels. Though usually highly unqualified, older siblings are often thrown into critical life coach roles, and our examples, counsel, and approval or disapproval can have a significant impact on the younger sibling—and we older brothers have to live with the outcomes and are often left trying to discern our role in those outcomes.
Older brothers often think we know best for our younger brothers. I have two. I knew best for a long time. With mostly good intentions, we often project the wisdom we’ve accrued to achieve a degree of personal success, or at least survival, on to our younger siblings. What often occurs, though, is that the older sibling has failed to see his or her younger sibling, what makes him unique, his ambitions, how he’s gifted. That blindness conveyed so vividly by Baldwin, is what haunted me most about “Sonny’s Blues.”
When, seated in the dark Jazz club in the last scene, the narrator sees his younger brother for the first time, I encountered possibly my most transcendent literary experience. To this day, after numerous readings, I can’t read the end without a deep emotional response. I am moved as much by the beauty and the coming together of the story as by the narrator’s long-resisted illumination.
For those who haven’t read the story or would like a refresher, here is a detailed plot summary (with a focus on the unnamed narrator and Sonny’s relationship and on Sonny’s unappreciated pursuit of excellence). The story is approximately thirty-five pages and chapterless. For simplicity of analysis, I break the story into five scenes.
Scene 1. Narrator on subway, at school, then walks with Sonny’s old friend back to subway
- The unnamed narrator in his late twenties, on the subway on his way to his high school algebra teaching job, reads in the Harlem paper that his seven-years-younger brother has been arrested and jailed for heroin possession.
- Narrator gets to school, teaches his classes, but he stews over Sonny and his troubles. He watches his high school students knowing that Sonny likely started using when he was around his students’ ages. A coldness envelopes him.
- Then, as he’s leaving the school, Narrator notices a young man in a doorway in the courtyard. He thinks it’s Sonny at first, but then he recognizes him as an old druggy friend of Sonny’s who grew up on their block and still hangs out there, always “high and raggy.” The “kid” asks if Narrator heard about Sonny, then he walks with him to the subway. They discuss Sonny’s drug use and his future—the mood is ominous. The kid stirs up emotions in Narrator, most of them negative. The kid asks for money before he leaves, and in an impulse of compassion narrator gives him a five (story published in 1957—would be $45 today).
Scene 2. Narrator’s two-year-old daughter has died; Narrator writes Sonny a letter in prison; Sonny writes back immediately. Narrator picks up Sonny, they drive Harlem, then Sonny has dinner with narrator’s family.
- Narrator tells us that after he found out about Sonny’s imprisonment, Narrator didn’t write “for a while”—not until after his daughter Gracie died. We don’t see Narrator’s letter, but we see Sonny’s one-page response. This is our first encounter with Sonny. He is humble, worried about his state of mind and what’s going to happen when he gets out. He doesn’t mention the death of his older brother’s daughter until the end of the letter, and only briefly.
- Narrator picks Sonny up when he is released from prison, after almost a year. They catch up and Sonny asks Narrator if he’s okay with driving through Harlem. Narrator agrees, though he’s uneasy. As they ride through the streets of their childhood, Narrator reminisces about their upbringing, how “Some escaped the trap [narrator], most [Sonny] didn’t.”
- Sonny arrives at Narrator’s house; they have nice dinner with Narrator’s family; but Narrator is filled with icy dread.
Scene 3. The entire scene is a long flashback of the brothers’ parents’ deaths and a history of narrator’s relationship with Sonny.
- Sonny reminds narrator of their father, who died when Sonny was fifteen (Narrator would have been twenty-two). Sonny is like their dad in that he has the same privacy. Narrator remembers his last conversation with his mom before she died: he told his mom he’d look after Sonny; she told Narrator that his father had had a brother who was run over by a drunk, carload of white men. Then, later, when Narrator was back in town for his mom’s funeral, Sonny told him that he wanted to be a musician, a jazz pianist, and the two brothers fought about it—Narrator questioned whether it was a legitimate occupation. Then Sonny said that he wanted to get out of Harlem, but Narrator told him he had to stay at Isabel’s (narrator’s fiancé at time and later his wife) for the year he had left to finish high school while Narrator completed his service in the army. Sonny reluctantly agreed when Narrator reminded him that they have a piano. Sonny stayed with Isabel and her parents for a few months. He played the piano non-stop in his spare time. Then, when Isabel’s parents found out that he’d been skipping school, they got pissed, and a couple days later Sonny left for the Navy without finishing high school.
- A few years later, the brothers both got out of the military and moved back to Harlem, where they saw each other occasionally but always fought as Narrator disapproved of Sonny’s musician friends and way of life. Narrator saw music as an excuse for Sonny to live the “goodtime” life. Then Sonny went to prison. Then Narrator’s two-year-old daughter died, and Narrator believed he wrote Sonny on the day they buried her. “My trouble made his real.”
Scene 4. The scene takes place in Narrator’s living room as he waits for and then talks to Sonny.
- The flashback is over. It’s a Saturday, Sonny’s been out of prison and staying with Narrator for two weeks. Narrator is in the house by himself looking out of the living room window, feeling anxious, contemplating searching Sonny’s room for drugs. He watches a “revival”—a man preaching and three women singing on the corner. Sonny emerges from the crowd and comes into the house. Sonny talks about the singer, about the suffering she must have endured to sing like that, then he invites narrator to watch him play at a jazz club in the Village later that night. The brothers have a long conversation about suffering, how to cope with it. Sonny talks ominously about missing heroin. At the end of the conversation, Sonny says, “it can come again,” meaning the drug use. Narrator says he understands.
Scene 5. The scene takes place at the jazz club.
- Later that night, Narrator goes with Sonny to the nightclub. Narrator has never seen Sonny in this environment. Creole, one of the musicians, is waiting for Sonny at the entrance. Everybody seems to recognize, know Sonny. He is a god here. The band starts playing—Sonny’s hasn’t played in over a year and he starts off slow, rusty. Creole, on the bass fiddle, controls the rhythm and once Sonny gets warmed up Creole gives Sonny the reigns and the music becomes Sonny’s blues. During the first break, Narrator sends drinks to the bandstand. Sonny takes his Scotch and milk and nods toward Narrator in his dark corner, then he places the glass on the piano. While Sonny begins to play again, the Scotch and milk “glowed and shook above” Sonny’s head “like the very cup of trembling.”
- The End
The narrator is in a kind of shock when the story opens. Both his parents have been dead for a few years, and he reads in the paper that his younger brother, his only sibling, whom he’s estranged from, has been arrested. We start at a low point for both Sonny and his unnamed narrator brother. We don’t know this yet, but the shock Narrator feels is a turning point for Narrator. He’s been shut off to Sonny. Reading about his little brother in the paper wakes Narrator up.
“I couldn’t believe it, but what I meant by that is that I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside me. I had kept it outside for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know.”
Then Sonny’s old friend visits. “I’d never liked him. And now, even though he was a grown-up man, he still hung around that block, still spent hours on the street corners, was always high and raggy.”
Narrator doesn’t want to see him. This makes sense. The guy’s a loser. Narrator has his own problems to deal with … But there’s more to it. This is one of the more powerful scenes in literature to me, but it didn’t become that until I had context, had become immersed in the entire story. What we don’t know yet is that Narrator had made a promise to his mother to look after Sonny. The kid is a reminder of his failure. “I couldn’t stand the way he looked at me, partly like a dog, partly like a cunning child.” The kid is street smart. He’s like a Harlem prophet or angel. He reminds me of Yoda when Luke first meets him; Yoda acts childish, steals Luke’s food, and Luke, who has no idea he’s Yoda, is angry and impatient with him, doesn’t recognize him; but his tone changes when he learns he’s in Yoda’s hut.
They start walking to the subway and the nameless prophet asks Narrator what he’s going to do about Sonny.
“’Look. I haven’t seen Sonny for over a year, I’m not sure I’m going to do anything. Anyway, what the hell can I do?’
‘That’s right,’ he said quickly, ‘ain’t nothing you can do. Can’t much help old Sonny no more, I guess.’
It was what I was thinking and so it seemed to me he had no right to say it.’”
“’Funny thing,’ he said, and from his tone we might have been discussing the quickest way to get to Brooklyn, ‘when I saw the papers this morning, the first thing I asked myself was if I had anything to do with it. I felt sort of responsible.”
The Harlem angel echoes the narrator’s thoughts, waxes his guilt, annoys him—beautiful stuff. Narrator asks him what’s going to happen to Sonny.
“’They’ll send him away some place and they’ll try to cure him.’ He shook his head. ‘Maybe he’ll even think he’s kicked the habit. Then they’ll let him loose’ – he gestured, throwing his cigarette into the gutter. ‘That’s all.’
‘What do you mean, that’s all?’
But I knew what he meant.
‘I mean, that’s all.’ He turned his head and looked at me, pulling down the corners of his mouth. ‘Don’t you know what I mean?’ he asked, softly.”
The questions Harlem Prophet asks … so great. The ominous is strong here. The more we realize that this druggy kid is a ghetto prophet the more we understand that Sonny is going to struggle. And this is important.
‘It’s going to be rough on old Sonny,’ he said.”
“All at once something inside gave and threatened to come pouring out of me. I didn’t hate him any more. I felt that in another moment I’d start crying like a child.”
Like Luke realizing he’s in the presence of Yoda, Narrator finally sees the druggy as a person, a person with struggles that don’t define him, a person like Sonny. He feels empathy, not his typical response. He must feel empathy for Sonny if he’s going to see him.
Then Narrator’s two-year-old daughter dies. Narrator writes Sonny a letter in prison. Sonny responds immediately, self-focused but grateful. Sonny completes his year in prison and Narrator takes a cab to pick him up.
“When I saw him many things I thought I had forgotten came flooding back to me. This was because I had begun, finally, to wonder about Sonny, about the life that Sonny lived inside. … when he smiled, when we shook hands, the baby brother I’d never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be coaxed into the light.”
They drive through Harlem, take a route along the park at Sonny’s request that summons nostalgia and internal philosophizing in Narrator. They arrive at Narrator’s home, where the kids and Narrator’s wife greet and honor Sonny.
During dinner Narrator “was filled with that icy dread again. Everything I did seemed awkward to me, and everything I said sounded freighted with hidden meaning. I was trying to remember everything I’d heard about dope addiction and I couldn’t help watching Sonny for signs.”
This is the big brother’s innate bigbrotherliness that keeps him from listening and seeing. He wants to control Sonny, to catch him, to set him right. Thankfully, he holds back. Confronting Sonny, projecting himself onto Sonny has never worked, has always pushed Sonny back inside himself.
“I was dying to hear him tell me he was safe.”
I love this line. He wants to protect his little bro, but he doesn’t know how. He’s always confronted him, fought him. But he’s learning: “It doesn’t do any good to fight with Sonny. Sonny just moves back, inside himself, where he can’t be reached.” These little breakthroughs move me.
Narrator is feeling his icy dread and now we’re into the long fill-the-reader-in flashback.
“‘It ain’t only the bad ones, nor yet the dumb ones that gets sucked under,’” Sonny and Narrator’s mom says to Narrator after their dad died. She also says, “‘Your daddy had a brother.’ She looked out the window again. ‘I know you never saw your daddy cry. But I did many a time, through all these years.’” The similarities between Sonny and his deceased father have been noted—this is a clue to Sonny’s inner turmoil.
“‘Your father says he heard his brother when the car rolled over him, and he heard the wood of that guitar when it give, and he heard them strings to go flying.’” (Car full of white guys ran over Sonny/Narrator’s dad’s little brother; no chance of repercussions (1920s or 30s); Dad never told his sons; Mom told Narrator after Dad died).
The following is a sequence from the flashback to narrator’s last conversation with his mother:
“‘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.’”
“‘You got to hold on to your brother,’ she said, ‘and don’t let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him. You going to be evil with him many a time. But don’t you forget what I told you, you hear?’
‘I won’t forget,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t forget. I won’t let nothing happen to Sonny.’
My mother smiled as though she was amused at something she saw in my face. Then, ‘You may not be able to stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you’s there.’”
Wow. Look at all these prophets. People have been watching Sonny. We’ve hardly met Sonny, but Harlem Prophet went way out of his way to talk to Narrator about Sonny, about what only one who understood Sonny could talk about, then we see that Mom talked to Narrator about Sonny. Sonny’s got something worth talking about, worth saving, worth writing a story about.
By now we have a strong feel for Narrator’s guilt from failed responsibility, but we haven’t really been introduced to Sonny, to what makes him unique. We don’t know if Sonny’s any good at piano—and this is how it should be as we are in Narrator’s head. Sonny’s talent is irrelevant to the narrator at this point. Why should we find out if the narrator doesn’t care? This holding back builds suspense. As Narrator continues the long flashback, we are introduced to Sonny’s first expression of interest in jazz piano.
Sonny tells Narrator he wants to be a Jazz musician and Narrator “sensed myself in the presence of something I didn’t really know how to handle.”
“… 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.”
“’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.’”
Sonny has stretched out on a limb here, but Narrator doesn’t acknowledge it, doesn’t care; Narrator doesn’t get his little brother, doesn’t see him, and therefore doesn’t respect him. This crushes Sonny.
“’… sure, I can make a living at it. But what I don’t seem to be able to make you understand is that it’s the only thing I want to do.’
‘Well, Sonny,’ I said gently, ‘you know people can’t always do exactly what they want to do—'
‘No, I don’t know that,’ said Sonny, surprising me. ‘I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for.’
‘You getting to be a big boy,’ I said desperately, ‘it’s time you started thinking about your future.’
‘I’m thinking about my future,’ said Sonny, grimly. ‘I think about it all the time.’
I gave up. I decided, if he didn’t change his mind, that we could always talk about it later.”
This is all so cringeworthy and well-written and familiar to this big brother. Then, when Narrator’s blindness has seemed to reach a pinnacle, the following:
“’Look, brother. I don’t want to stay in Harlem no more, I really don’t.’ He was very earnest. He looked at me, then over toward the kitchen window. There was something in his eyes I’d never seen before, some thoughtfulness, some worry all his own. He rubbed the muscle of one arm. ‘It’s time I was getting out of here.’”
The reader can’t fully understand the impact of this moment until he’s read the story to the end. Sonny is reaching out to his big brother for help. He’s started using drugs—he knows Harlem is bad for him, that he needs to get out. He just lost both his parents. He’s at a low—he needs support, family, and to escape the drug environment that enshrouds him. He’s a smart but very private kid. He needs his big brother to understand him without fully explaining himself. He tests the waters to see if big brother might get him. How does big brother respond? He tells Sonny that he must stay with his fiancé in Harlem and finish school, instead of going into the Navy as Sonny wisely desires.
“’Sonny. You hear me?’
He pulled away. ‘I hear you. But you never hear anything I say.’”
So true. Sonny sees. Sonny may have a selfishness to him that helps big brother justify some of his behavior, but Sonny is prescient, wise (in his way) beyond his years—he is a genius, though we don’t know it yet, and narrator certainly doesn’t, but it is a glimpse.
Then we get to see Sonny and his interest in the piano at fifteen. As one who from a young age idolized excellence, especially that level obtained through a miraculous amalgam of obsession and talent, the following takes me to a uniquely naïve, hope-filled emotional state that I treasure.
“… he went straight to that piano and stayed there until suppertime. And, after supper, he went back to that piano and stayed there until everybody went to bed. He was at the piano all day Saturday and all day Sunday.”
“Isabel [narrator’s fiancé who Sonny’s living with while narrator is in the Army] confessed that it wasn’t like living with a person at all, it was like living with sound. And the sound didn’t make any sense to her, didn’t make any sense to any of them – naturally.”
“It was as though Sonny were some sort of god, or monster. He moved in an atmosphere which wasn’t like theirs at all.”
“… as though he were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn’t any way to reach him.”
This is a subtle setup for the end. Sonny is private, complex—he can only be understood through his music. Narrator gets this on a surface level, which gives Sonny slight hope, enough for him to engage Narrator, to give him a chance. But Narrator can’t accept it, not yet. The more I read this, the more I feel that Baldwin started with the end—everything fits, is made relevant by and builds toward a specific ending.
“[…] they dimly sensed, as I sensed, from so many thousand miles away that Sonny was at the piano playing for his life.”
But Narrator doesn’t know how to respond. He still sees piano as a fad, as a means to the goodtime life—he knows Sonny’s fighting for his life, but that’s about all he gets—he doesn’t realize what the piano actually means to Sonny—he doesn’t realize because he doesn’t ask—he’s too scared of something he doesn’t understand. And he reacts as many of us do to what we don’t understand, he demeans it, shuns it, tries to block it out.
When Isabel and her parents lash out at Sonny for skipping classes, Sonny feels, and accurately according to Narrator, that Sonny’s presence—his constant piano-practicing—bothered Isabel and her family immensely, and it crushes quietly-aware Sonny.
“[…] they penetrated his cloud, they had reached him. Even if their fingers had been times more gentle than human fingers ever are, he could hardly help feeling that they had stripped him naked and were spitting on that nakedness. For he had to see that his presence, that music, which was life or death to him, had been torture for them and that they had endured it, not at all for his sake but only for mine. And Sonny couldn’t take that.”
He had exposed himself, and the viewers didn’t like what they saw. Isabel and her family weren’t his people, and he had to get out. He did. He left for the Navy a couple days later.
Then, a few years later, Sonny and Narrator are both out of the military and back in Harlem, where they don’t hang out and they fight whenever they met.
“I didn’t like the way he carried himself, loose and dreamlike all the time, and I didn’t like his friends, and his music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led. It sounded just that weird and disordered.”
And here Narrator visits Sonny at his apartment in the Village, their last interaction before Sonny is arrested:
“So I got mad and then he got mad, and then I told him that he might just as well be dead as live the way he was living. … I stood in the hallway, starting at the door. I heard somebody laugh in the room and then the tears came to my eyes. I started down the steps, whistling to keep from crying, I kept whistling to myself. You going to need me, baby, one of these cold, rainy days.”
Narrator has so much pride invested in Sonny choosing a non-musician career path–this pride keeps narrator from pondering whether Sonny was meant to play music, whether Sonny’s onto something, whether Sonny’s opinion has merit.
Now we jump forward.
“I think I may have written Sonny the very day that little Grace was buried. I was sitting in the living room in the dark, by myself, and I suddenly thought of Sonny. My trouble made his real.”
Narrator’s own tragedy opens him up to Sonny. The brevity of life, the family connection, or just profound pain—whatever it is exactly, the death of his two-year-old generates humility and sympathy in Narrator, and he writes Sonny a letter.
Sonny responds to the letter. He is kind, grateful, and humble in his response—he is at a low point and grateful for his brother’s love. A subtle fact about the letter that stood out to me and helped make Sonny so real to me: Narrator’s two-year-old daughter just died, like a couple weeks ago, and Sonny talks about himself for the entire page-length letter until at the very end where he mentions Gracie briefly. Younger brothers, addicts, artists, and geniuses are each often selfish. Sonny appears to be all four.
But narrator is so grateful for Sonny’s humility, he doesn’t notice the selfishness, or at least it doesn’t bother him. I think that if narrator hadn’t been at such a nadir after the death of his daughter, with both parents dead, in need of familial love—he probably would have found something to criticize in Sonny’s letter. His response to the letter serves as another clue that Narrator is moving closer to finally seeing, hearing Sonny.
Now back to the present.
Narrator is standing in the living room gazing out the window at the Harlem street corner revival “…trying to work up courage to search Sonny’s room,” when he sees Sonny break from the revival crowd and walk toward the house.
Sonny gets inside and almost right off he says, “’You want to come some place with me tonight?’
I sensed, I don’t know how, that I couldn’t possibly say no. ‘Sure. Where?’
He sat down on the sofa and picked up his notebook and started leafing through it. ‘I’m going to sit in with some fellows in a joint in the Village.’
‘You mean, you’re going to play, tonight?’
‘That’s right.’ He took a swallow of his beer and moved back to the window. He gave me a sidelong look. ‘If you can stand it.’”
This is Sonny reaching out. We know how private Sonny is—we get the idea that Narrator has never seen/heard Sonny play—he’s heard him messing around and he didn’t like it; it sounded “disordered” to Narrator. Narrator has never supported Sonny’s music, of which Sonny is sharply aware. Sonny is throwing out a huge olive branch here. Narrator has swatted these branches away in the past, but he is trying to listen to Sonny, to what he knows deep in his subconscious. Even so, his response is reluctant, instinctive at this point: “I sensed, I don’t know how, that I couldn’t possibly say no.”
“’When she was singing before,’ said Sonny, abruptly [Sonny’s talking about the ‘Revival’ street corner singer], ‘her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes—when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant. And—sure.’ He sipped his beer, very deliberately not looking at me. I watched his face. ‘it makes you feel in-control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling.’”
What an opportunity for big bro to feel, show empathy, to try to crawl into Sonny’s skin … Instead, he says, “’Do you?’ I sat down slowly in the easy chair.”
‘Sometimes.’ He went to the sofa and picked up his notebook again. ‘Some people do.’
And now Sonny is retreating again, as is his habit, using a generalization, other people, as a shield.
“’It’s not so much to play. It’s to stand it, to be able to make it at all. On any level.’ He frowned and smiled: ‘In order to keep from shaking to pieces.’”
“’And what about you?’ I asked – I couldn’t help it. ‘What about you? Do you want to?’
Narrator is fighting himself. How he responds going forward if Sonny continues to put himself out there, to give narrator another chance, is critical.
“He stood up and walked to the window and I remained silent for a long time. Then he sighed. ‘Me,’ he said. Then: ‘While I was downstairs before, on my way here, listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through – to sing like that. It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.’”
He still won’t talk about himself, but his comment on suffering is illuminating, and this begs a question that plagues me throughout the story: why does Sonny suffer so much? We probably can’t get the answer from the text, and the story, and this essay, is more about big bro than Sonny—the fact that he suffers is more important than the reason he suffers—but the question is still relevant, as the root of Sonny’s suffering, or at least narrator’s interpretation of it, impacts narrator’s response to Sonny. Both of Sonny’s parents were dead by the time Sonny was sixteen or so; he started using around this time. It is noted that Sonny fought with his dad, was always inward. Growing up poor in Harlem is probably enough to cause a lot of suffering.
Nonetheless, Sonny is attuned to the suffering in the lady’s voice. This is of course a precursor to Sonny playing in front of Narrator later.
“I realized, with this mocking look, that there stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence so long!—when he had needed human speech to help him.”
In progressive acknowledgements, Narrator recognizes where he has failed Sonny. These little insights are the building blocks toward the story’s final scene.
“He turned back to the window. ‘No, there’s no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem – well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you’re suffering for it. You know?’ I said nothing. ‘Well you know,’ he said, impatiently, ‘why do people suffer? Maybe it’s better to do something to give it a reason, any reason.’
‘But we just agreed,’ I said, ‘that there’s no way not to suffer. Isn’t it better, then, just to take it?’
‘But nobody just takes it,’ Sonny cried, ‘that’s what I’m telling you! Everybody tries not to. You’re just hung up on the way some people try—it’s not your way!”
Sonny gets it. He’s so far ahead of big bro. And maybe Narrator realizes this by the end. I like to think so. But Sonny understand that people are different. There are different ways to cope with the suffering. His way is not his brother’s and vice versa. The only healthy way Sonny can cope is through his music.
“I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t. I wanted to talk about will power and how life could be well, beautiful. I wanted to say that it was all within; but was it? Or, rather, wasn’t that exactly the trouble? And I wanted to promise that I would never fail him again. But it would all have sounded— empty words and lies.”
I love these lines, that he holds his tongue. Silence is often the best choice. Less didacticism from the big bro teacher and more listening—that’s what I long for as I read.
“’It’s terrible sometimes, inside,’ he said, ‘that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out—that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.’”
Wow, is all I can say. Yes, find a way to listen, big bro. He does for now—he lets Sonny keep talking.
“[…] ‘I needed a fix, I needed to find a place to lean, I needed to clear a space to listen—and I couldn’t find it, and I went crazy, I did terrible things to me, I was terrible for me.’ He began pressing the beer can between his hands, I watched the metal begin to give. It glittered, as he played with it like a knife, and I was afraid he would cut himself, but I said nothing.”
“’I couldn’t tell you when Mama died – but the reason I wanted to leave Harlem so bad was to get away from drugs.’”
If Narrator had asked questions and listened to answers, instead of asserting his own will on Sonny, he would have found this out years ago. At the end of their conversation, Sonny says the following about his drug use: “’It can come again,’ he repeated. ‘I just want you to know that.’
‘All right,’ I said, at last. ‘So it can come again. All right.’
He smiled, but the smile was sorrowful. ‘I had to try to tell you,’ he said.
‘yes,’ I said. ‘I understand that.’
‘You’re my brother,’ he said, looking straight at me, and not smiling all.’
‘Yes,’ I repeated, ‘yes. I understand that.’”
We move to the final scene on a foreboding but somewhat hopeful note. It is foreboding in that Sonny wants to make it clear to Narrator that he is on the brink of a relapse. But it is hopeful in that Sonny talks as openly as he ever has with Narrator—he reaches out for help, and Narrator is more prepared and willing than he’s ever been to help. They also got through a deep conversation without fighting. Though there is an edge to their dialogue, it is a breakthrough, an act of forbearance and bravery and love on both sides. And now we are set for the final scene, which, I apologize, I’m going to quote huge chunks of—I feel I’m doing a disservice otherwise.
They arrive at the jazz club later that night.
“I was introduced to all of them and they were all very polite to me. Yet, it was clear that, for them I was only Sonny’s brother. Here, I was in Sonny’s world. Or, rather: his kingdom. Here, it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood.”
I remember the chills that these lines gave me when I first read them as a sophomore in college when one of my younger brothers was a senior in high school. He was a star on his basketball team and would later earn MVP of his league. I would drive the hour from my college and bring a couple buddies. We’d sit in a corner of the packed gym and my brother would dribble the ball up the court to “MVP” chants. A tingling sensation of pride and love and excitement would pulse through me. My brother had royal blood.
“A woman’s voice called Sonny’s name and a few hands started clapping. And Sonny, also being funny, and being ceremonious, and so touched, I think, that he could have cried, but neither hiding it nor showing it, riding it like a man, grinned, and put both hands to his heart and bowed from the waist.”
This is the first time we’ve seen Sonny anything close to happy. He’s in his element.
Creole strikes the fiddle and the band begins to play.
“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something happens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny’s face. His face was troubled, he was working hard … Creole … was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing … He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the kesy which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.”
Narrator listens, watches closely. He’s investing in his much-younger brother. He’s cheering for him, keeping score, wants to see him win, not on his own terms, but on Sonny’s.
“[…] Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own.”
Narrator, because he’s seeing, listening to Sonny, develops a deeper respect for the musician, sees facets to the dedicated musician that he’s never seen cared to see before from goodtime people.
“Sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now.”
Sonny’s ability to succeed on the piano clearly mirrors his prospects of succeeding in life. Sonny is playing for his life. Big bro narrates the struggle and rhythm of the music and musicians so beautifully here—my paraphrase falls way short.
“Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face. He seemed to have found, right there beneath his fingers, a damn brand new piano. It seemed that he couldn’t get over it. Then, for a while, just being happy with Sonny, seemed to be agreeing with him that brand-new piano certainly were a gas.”
Happiness again, triumph, getting through the rust.
“Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness. … Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. … Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.
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.”
This is what Sonny was meant to do. It’s how he was meant to give back, to share, to help others. It is both his selfishness and his generosity. When one has found her or his calling, selfishness and generosity collide.
“… 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 [yes, this!], 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.”
Big brother is seeing his little bro, listening—what Sonny always needed
“… And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever.”
Here, big bro recounts how the music helps him see and feel suffering—see his parents, his lost baby girl. Powerful.
“… And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and the trouble stretched above us, longer that the sky. Then it was over. Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning. There was a lot of applause and some of it was real.”
All an artist can ask for is that some of the applause is real.
During the intermission, Narrator buys drinks for the band.
“… I saw the girl put a scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny. He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded.” This subtle thank you to his big bro for coming out of his own element and into Sonny’s to see him in his brief glory moves me each time I read it. Sonny needs his big bro, needs him to be there for him, to see his talent, to love him for what he was meant to do, and after years of stubborn blindness, he’s here for Sonny, and Sonny knows it. Emotional moment for me. “Then he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.”
The cup of trembling is a reference to Isaiah 51 where the cup of trembling represents the wrath of God—in other words, pain and destruction. The image reiterates the idea that Sonny is playing for his life—the trembling cup, which represents his destruction, perches precariously on the piano.
The story ends on the high of an older brother’s profound recognition of his younger brother’s talent, his essence, his suffering. It’s a note of hope, but it’s shadowed with Sonny’s expected relapses. The expectation of a relapse and an ongoing struggle is pounded onto the page, starting with the Harlem prophet, then the mother, then Sonny himself. Sonny’s performance does nothing to allay that concern. But it provides hope–which no deep-rooted struggle is surmountable without. Sonny’s life is worth preserving, fighting for—he should have big brother support at least.
“Sonny’s Blue’s” is a lengthy short story—about 35 pages. In a vacuum, if “Sonny’s Blues” was a one scene story—just the long music scene at the end—would it have been touching? Would we have picked up on some of the brotherly tension and the family’s struggle? Sure. But the depth of the conflict between the brothers, the older brother’s building awareness, guilt, the depth of Sonny’s drug issues, his loneliness, his maybe unhealthy obsession with an instrument that could be his savior or maybe his devil, the (up until the end) older brother’s lack of acknowledgement, understanding, and appreciation for his brother’s gift, it all sets the stage for a more powerful literary experience. I’ve read the story multiple times, but the moments at the end, where, after struggling to get going, begins to pickup momentum, take control, and actually have fun, as Narrator sees all of this; and secondly, the ending snapshot of the glowing milky-gold liquid vibrating on top of the piano above Sonny’s head as a reference to God’s wrath—they bring the feels each time I contemplate or read them.
Great stories often leave us with memorable images. The cup of trembling vibrating on the piano above the brilliant yet fragile addict pianist’s head is an indelible fixture in my mind.
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Were I to wish for anything I would not wish for wealth and power, but the passion of the possible, that eye which everywhere, ever young, ever burning, sees possibility. Pleasure disappoints, not possibility.
- Soren Kierkegaard