What does the story "Sonny's Blues" imply about the relationship between life and art?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is intriguing that the title of James Baldwin's story can be read two ways: "Sonny's Blues" can mean the music that Sonny plays, or it can mean his depression, his "blues," or state of discontent and unhappiness. This same duality exists with the term "the blues." For, the Blues is a uniquely American music that originated with the English expression "the blue devils," a term derived from the seventeenth century that described the intense hallucinations that might result from severe alcohol withdrawal. Over time, the term changed to "the blues,"meaning a state of depression or agitation. This music began in the Deep South and it expressed the feelings of those who composed and sang it. Truly, the Blues speak to the soul; there is, indeed, a link between this art form and life, a link that connects with the spirit of those who play and sing it, and those who listen.

Critic John M. Reilly observes that "Sonny's Blues" both depicts and demonstrates the conviction that the "artful expression of personal yet typical experience is one way to freedom." Art, then, acts as a conduit for the expression of the soul that can unite with others and therefore, create meaning for the individual. Music connects others because it speaks to the soul and heart of man. As the brother observes Sonny cross the street, he notes that his brother has a slow, loping stride much like Harlem hipsters; however, he has "imposed on this his own half-beat." After Sonny enters the house, he glances out the window at a street singer to whom he had been listening. Later, he comments about listening to that woman,

"...it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through--to sing like that....No, there's no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem--well, like you."

Even further in the narrative, Sonny invites his brother to accompany him to a nightclub where he will be performing. As the brother sits in the dark waiting for Sonny to come onstage, he reflects upon the "personal, private, vanishing evocations" that most people experience as they hear music.  But, he adds,

...the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

By listening to Sonny's music, the brother apprehends his own history and traditions--his own essence, an essence much like that of his brother. Music, as art, speaks to the soul, and as it does, it heals the soul and "imposes order" with its redemptive powers. Exemplifying this message to the soul that brings with it an empathy and restorative order is even the form of Baldwin's story that of itself has a musicality in its sentence rhythms, crescendos of recurring motifs, and "half-beats." Sherley Ann Williams writes that 

Music is the medium through which the musician achieves enough understanding and strength to deal with the past and present hurt.

Just as Creole "hit something in all of them" at the nightclub, so does Baldwin "hit" something in his readers, too.

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