Harrison Middleton University

Sonny’s Blues Discussion

Sonny’s Blues Discussion

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March 8, 2024

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

If there’s one thing you know about me by now, it’s that I value discussion. This past weekend, a number of students, staff and alumni gathered in Tempe, Arizona for a rare in-person meeting. We last met just before COVID, which caused a few years hiatus. Happily, we were finally able to renew this tradition. HMU President Joe Coulson started us off with an excellent introductory discussion about the similarities between music and poetry.

We can obviously start with techniques like rhythm and rhyme, etc. But I want to focus on the way that both music and language improvise. James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” ends with a scene in a bar where Sonny plays “for his life.” The story demonstrates the vitality of the dance between the individual and the group. In other words, while playing, Sonny demonstrates a rich knowledge of musical history, but expresses it through the story of his own life.

Up to this point in the story, we have learned that music is central to Sonny’s life. However, his older brother, the story’s narrator, feels that music will not support Sonny. He advises Sonny to pursue a real career. Yet, Sonny only wants to play, only wants to show his brother how vital song is. So, Sonny invites the narrator to a performance. The narrator says,

“All I know about music is that not many people every really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But 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.”

Somehow, the musician structures experience. In order to impose order, the musician must use everything from within. This includes music history, knowledge of the instrument, knowledge of the other musicians, as well as the emotional well-spring at their core and at the community’s core. In this story, Sonny works with the band leader, Creole, who helps Sonny identify his own song within the context of the group. At that point, improvisation begins. At that point, Sonny becomes the song and the song becomes Sonny. The music represents pain, suffering, and life on a communal scale. Somehow, music moves through the individual, who has been embraced by the larger musical traditions, by ages of music which depict pain and suffering, and this new way is the merge of one individual with community. This new way threads the individual into community through musical notes. Baldwin writes,

“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.”

There’s not a single musical notation in this story, and yet I could swear the language is musical. Sonny, at the piano, playing for his life, banging away softly, gently, rising with emotion, falling into pain and despair, diminishing, dipping, and diving into the human. As he rights himself again, he’s told our story as much as his.

The cadence of the written word works just like the musical phrase. In this case, Baldwin combines the two, perhaps improvising at times, to demand the reader’s attention. Finally, we arrive at a most astonishing revelation: that our two freedoms depend upon each other. Sonny’s music can lead someone to freedom, but only if they listen. Only if they attend. Likewise, a listener can lead Sonny to freedom, but only through deep listening.

The act of listening, then, receives the highest importance in this story. Did Baldwin know that when he set about crafting it? I will never know, but I do know that his story derives from so many miscommunications, so many silencings. He is painfully aware that freedom does depend upon listening, and through improv or technique, history or rhyme, he tells us so with Sonny’s fingers and Creole’s band. If only we would listen, if only we would attend.

Discussion helps us find the highlights, helps us stay connected. Therefore, I am indebted to all of the participants from the HMU Community Weekend. And thanks to Joe Coulson for selecting the readings.

Sonny’s Blues audio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcqXW976dkU

Sonny’s Blues text: https://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/wooda/2B-HUM/Readings/Baldwin-Sonnys-Blues.pdf

Photo credit: Shutterstock/ Vicky Varotariya

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