Music is an important form of communication and expression in the story, and it is the vehicle through which the older brother can understand his younger brother. The blues link the brothers—the blues, spirituals, and the songs of slaves are all part of the jazz pedigree. Early in the story, a boy whistles a complicated tune, as though he is a bird, recalling for us the nickname of Charlie Parker. In the narrator’s memory of his parents seated in church, he highlights “the jangling beat of a tambourine from one of the churches close by.” The mother’s story of the father’s brother includes the fact that the brother had a guitar, sang, and was whistling on the night he was run down by drunken white men. The narrator whistles after he and Sonny fight, and a woman sings before the two of them head off, toward the end of the story, to Greenwich Village where Sonny plays. The street music heard from the revival meeting is the music of spiritual sustenance, and we are told that it “seemed to soothe the poison out.”
“Sonny’s Blues” is also a story about drug addiction. The story opens with the narrator’s feeling of ice in his own veins as he reads about Sonny’s arrest for possession of heroin. Sonny’s friend is also an addict and is looking for money from the narrator for his next fix. In the scene before the brothers go to Greenwich Village to hear Sonny play, Sonny says that he needs drugs to be able to stand “it.” Suffering is seen as a cause of drug addiction, though the theme of suffering is also tied to the loss of Grace, the narrator’s daughter. The narrator himself does not fall into drug addiction but certainly comes to a clearer understanding of Sonny and others who are addicted. The story also has strong generational ties. Sonny, as he points out in his letter to the narrator, wishes he could have the faith his mother had. After she tells the story of the father’s brother’s death on that long, dark road in the past, she says, “I praise my Redeemer.” Without faith, there seems to be left only music or drugs.
“Sonny’s Blues” is simply a story of an older brother coming to a greater understanding of his younger brother—the younger brother whose first words he heard and whom he caught from falling with his first steps. The narrator, from the story’s opening, is disturbed and frightened by the story of his brother’s arrest for heroin that he reads in the newspaper. The narrator wants to understand his brother, to know about his inner life. Ultimately, he learns about Sonny through his music, and his brother becomes “real.”