How do outside influences factor into Sonny's work?"Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In James Baldwin's short story, "Sonny's Blues," a revival takes place across from his brother's house, and the brother watches it as he has so many times before.  But, this time, after having lost his little Grace, the brother watches the meeting with different eyes and heart.  He notices that

the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last.

Then, he perceives Sonny looking at the woman with a wry smile.  He turns and walks across the street, but the narrator notices for the first time what a musical walk--a slow, loping walk...[he] imposed on his own half-beat.  After he enters the house, Sonny tells his brother that listening to the woman's voice reminded him of the simultaneous "warm and cool" feeling of heroin in the veins:  "It makes you feel--in control.  Sometimes you've got to have that feeling." Sonny also remarks that it struck him "how much suffering she must have had to go through--to sing like that."

The woman's singing gave voice to her suffering, to her emotions.  His playing of the the musical instrument, the piano, does the same for Sunny that the instrument of her voice does for the woman.  Later, at the nightclub, Sonny's brother understands the connection:

I had never before thought of how awful [causing awe] the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument.  He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own.

And, when Sonny plays,

everthing had been burned out of hit [his face], and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there.

His instrument, like "the very cup of trembling" that the brother perceives glowing above Sunny's head, is the voice of all that Sonny has experienced and all that he has lived.  Like the woman who suffered so she could sing as she does, Sonny must play his piano as an expression of his suffering in the "vivid killing streets" of Harlem.  The murder of his uncle, the darkness of drugs and crime, the fear, the anguish--all "burned in" and "burned out" of Sonny as he gives breath to his instrument, expressing all of his emotion in music.


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