Much like a musical piece, James Baldwin's short story begins with an initial striking note as the narrator is suddenly confronted with memory and the present simultaneously as he reads the newspaper report of Sonny. After having pushed his brother from his mind for years, the narrator reads one day about Sonny's arrest, and"[H]e became real" to him again, but the image is of the stereotypical heroin-addicted musician. And, yet like a "great block of ice" slowly melting, the brother recalls one specific thing or another about Sonny. He listens to the music of memory that he has kept outside himself for years; he hears it in the laughter of the boys he teaches,
It was not the joyous laughter which--God knows why--one associates with children. It was mocking and insular, its intent was to denigrate. It was disenchanted,...and in them I heard my brother. And myself.
This brother Sonny is the dark side of the narrator. Then, the narrator hears one boy whistling, who is like Sonny for whom music assuages his soul,
at once very complicated and very simple,...[the tune] pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool,,,holding its own through all those other sounds.
After the narrator encounters an old friend of Sonny's, who is also a heroin addict, he is unsympathetic to him and abrupt; however, when the man says, "I felt sort of responsible" for Sonny's addiction, the narrator remarks, "I began to listen more carefully." The man tells the narrator that Sonny had asked him to describe how heroin felt, and he said "it felt great." The narrator is suddenly immersed into the "menacing" world known to Sonny and his friend. He realizes that Sonny will die if he does not stop his addiction. And, yet, he does not communicate with Sonny for some time--not until his daughter dies and he, then, understands heartache. At this point there is a break in the narrative, and in her essay "James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues': A Message in Music," Suzy Bernstein Goldman contends this is the end of the first musical movement.
After he writes to Sonny, his younger brother replies to him, asking if he would meet him in New York when he is released. When Sonny arrives they drive through the old neighborhood, the "killing streets of our childhood" which has changed little. Again the narrator mentions the "menace" which is the area's "very breath of life." For one thing, the narrator's complacency is threatened; he only wants to hear that Sonny has beaten his addiction and is safe, and no longer an addict.
Then, in a movement of flashbacks, the narrator recalls his mother's concern for Sonny's safety; he remembers when Sonny lived with him and his family and Sonny played the piano constantly, as though he were "playing for his life." Later, listening to Sonny from his own dark corner in the nightclub, the narrator realizes that his "trouble" has made Sonny's real for him as he, too, has "played" a role for his life.
Having witnessed a street revival, Sonny returns with his musical walk and he recalls "how much suffering she must have gone through--to sing like that," and the narrator knows, too, that suffering cannot be escaped. So, as he listens to Sonny's music at the club, the narrator also listens to Sonny's and his own sufferings. Sonny has told him that when he took heroin, he often felt the most creative, but he was tortured, "at the bottom of something." All of this emotion is suffused in Sonny's music, the music of his soul. As "freedom lurked about us," the narrator and Sonny both are liberated momentarily from their suffering through the musical power of "Sonny's blues"which gives meaning to their fraternity.