Notes on “Sonny’s Blues”

All that hatred down there. All that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart.

In a few hours I’ll be discussing James Baldwin’s story, “Sonny’s Blues,” with my class of English as a Second language students. For the last year we’ve been working our way through anthologies of American literature, cherry-picking stories that I felt were appropriately readable, aesthetically interesting, and representative of their era. In other words, I want good stories that teach us something about life in America. (Toward those ends, I can highly recommend The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, which is a 768-page steal at $13.57.)

Over the last few months, my concept of what is “appropriately readable” has expanded dramatically to match the inspiring efforts of my students. They’re just amazing people. One told me that he spends ten hours each week reading, carefully annotating, and then rereading and re-rereading each 10-15 page story. Can you imagine? In the last four weeks, we’ve read Jack London, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor. Unbelievable. And tonight it’s time, finally, for “Sonny’s Blues,” which might just be my all-time favorite story.

The room where we meet is a typical Sunday School class, with children’s art projects on the wall and an old upright piano pushed into the corner. I set aside ten minutes at the end of class last week to introduce Baldwin. I told them a bit about Harlem and Baldwin’s preacher father, and then I asked what they could tell me about the blues.

Blank stares.

“It’s boring,” Martha said, and a few people, myself included, laughed.

So I pulled out my boombox and played for them the first five minutes of “Freddie Freeloader” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. I walked over to the piano and fumbled through the three-chord, 12-bar progression.

“Those chords, those three chords — that makes it the blues. Hear how they repeat? Over and over again? Almost every blues song is built from that same series of chords.”

They nodded.

By that point, Wynton Kelly and John Coltrane were trading solos.

“The song started with a really simple melody, remember? Daaaaaaaa-daaa. Daaaaaaaa-daaa. [and now a few steps higher] Daaaaaaaa-daaa. [and back down again] Daaaaaaaa-daaa. And so on. Now, hear how the piano and saxophone players have moved beyond the melody? They’re improvising. Making it up as they go. Creating new melodies as they play. That improvisation is what makes it jazz.”

I’ve never played music in class before. Never spent that much time prepping the group for their next reading. But I can’t imagine reading “Sonny’s Blues” without knowing what the blues and jazz sound like, without knowing something about improvisation and the conversational story-telling that goes on between the best soloists. Tonight, some Charlie Parker might be in order.

I’ve probably read “Sonny’s Blues” ten times over the years, but today will be my first chance to teach it, and, as usual, “preparing” the story yesterday afternoon forced me to read it better than I ever had before. That paragraph about the narrator’s daughter, Grace, stills makes me choke on tears, but I’d never really noticed before how Baldwin develops dissonant images of a barely-remembered childhood innocence from the opening pages on. When Sonny’s old friend, now a junkie, grins, the narrator tells us:

It made him repulsive and it also brought to mind what he’d looked like as a kid.

When the narrator catches sight of a woman in a juke joint, Baldwin writes:

When she smiled one saw the little girl, one sensed the doomed, still-struggling woman beneath the battered face of the semi-whore.

And when the narrator and his brother are reunited after Sonny’s time in prison, we get this:

Yet, when he smiled, when he shook hands, the baby brother I’d never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be coaxed into the light.

I once delivered a pizza to what can only be described as a crack house. Two women, both in their early-30s, I’d guess, paid me with a handful of crumpled bills and loose coins. As I stood there waiting for them to count it out, I watched the children in the room, five or six of them in front of the TV, ranging in age from maybe 2 to 12. I saw those kids again yesterday when I was reading, saw the bright, shining eyes of the two-year-old and the broken, tired expression of her oldest brother. Their faces were like a portrait of defeat.

(I’m just another white guy, born into the relative comfort and stability of middle class America, and so I’m always in danger of being patronizing when I say things like this, but I’m so grateful for works of art like “Sonny’s Blues. Empathy doesn’t come easy here in Suburbia.)

When I introduced the story last week, I told my students that the blues is also about transforming pain into something beautiful, that that transformation is what Sonny is pursuing as if his life quite literally depended on it, and that Baldwin, in fact, accomplishes the same feat in his story. What I noticed this time through, though, is how Baldwin actually takes on the rhythms of jazz in his writing style, “improvising” within individual sentences. “Sonny’s Blues” is littered with sentences like:

When the last bell rang, the last class ended, I let out my breath.

And now, even though he was a grown-up man, he still hung around that block, still spent hours on the street corner, was always high and raggy.

But it was as though he were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own.

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.

Like a soloist, Baldwin introduces an idea, a phrase, then he explores it, explodes it, develops it until he finds something new, something more precise or melodic. Baldwin accomplishes in his story what Sonny accomplishes in that jazz club. And, really, isn’t this just the most beautiful “vanishing evocation” (as the narrator describes music) of what art is capable of doing?

Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.