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In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," even though the narrator cannot understand it, music feeds his brother's soul and helps him to cope with his personal suffering.
There are a number of references that indicate how important music is to Sonny. The first occurs when Sonny tries to tell his brother that he wants to play music for a living.
"Doesn't all this take time? Can you make a living at it?"
He turned back to me and half leaned, half sat on the kitchen table. "Everything takes time," he said, "and—well, yes, 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?"
Some time later, after the narrator's daughter Grace has died, the brothers are reunited. The narrator wants to help his brother but doesn't know that he really can, but he promises himself silently that he will try. And he listens to Sonny:
"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."
This passage indicates the tortured soul within Sonny, and that his only relief comes from facing the pain in the music that he plays.
Finally, at the story's end, Sonny's brother finally understands when he hears Sonny play, and hears what his brother is able to do with the music coming from his fingers:
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. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn't hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with 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, that he would never be free until we did.
Perhaps the loss of Grace never allowed the narrator to comprehend Sonny's suffering because it was a pain different than his own: but Sonny's music now exposes to him the truth of suffering—it is as painful as a knife wound, but simply occurs with different people for different reasons. The suffering is still there.
And even though Sonny's music brings him suffering, he cannot livewithout it. Perhaps he is even more alive than his brother because he faces it, fights with it and immerses himself in it through the blues. The hope he offers to others, like his brother, may also be hope he looks for, for himself as well. There may be some of Sonny's father in him—a desire his father wasn't quick to show:
...he was always on the lookout for "something a little better"...
It may be that the music can do that for Sonny.
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