How is Baldwin's style "musical" in "Sonny's Blues"?

Expert Answers
amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In parts of this story, the narrator's cadence has the musical quality and rhythm of a preacher in a sermon. The opening paragraph shows this. Note the repetition which establishes a rhythm and the sounds of a preacher commenting upon the outside world: 

I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. 

I read it, and I couldn't believe it, and I read it again. 

Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. 

I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside. 

This fits because the narrator is always preaching to Sonny, trying to help him get his life in order. But Sonny needs to understand the disorder. And this is why he turns to jazz, a musical style which, to some, sounds disordered and wandering. When Sonny goes to stay with Isabel and her family, he begins learning the piano. The narrator notes that Sonny was more like a cloud of music than a person, and he uses poetic description to make this point: 

. . . but it was 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. 

Sonny uses the blues/jazz to channel into his suffering but also as a way to expel it. He needs to understand the suffering in order to get beyond it. Even the narrator uses music to deal with suffering. After his fight with Sonny in the village, he whistles to keep from crying. "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." Of course, this single moment doesn't clue the narrator in to the fact of how Sonny needs music to deal with the world. 

In the final paragraphs of the story, the narrator finally begins to understand the music. Creole tells the audience about how blues is nothing new; rather, it is about finding "new ways to make us listen." When Sonny begins to play again, the narrator gets it, and allows the music to transport him to his past and allows him to understand the need to listen differently. Baldwin has the narrator thinking quite poetically in order to match the powerful emotion that the music evokes in him. Here again, the narrator still has the cadence of a preacher, but more musically poetic: 

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. 

And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky. 

Read the study guide:
Sonny's Blues

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question