“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin

In the story of “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin story is established on common themes that explores suffering experienced by a black family predominantly two brothers as they struggle through individualism, lacks education, drug addiction also imprisonment. It describes many struggles between brothers separated and caught while entangled with time, space, and ideals. The narrator explains why Harlem was a very ruff neighborhood to live in and to raise a family, due to the environment his brother Sonny begin to do drugs but uses jazz music as an outlet. This piece of literature introduces suffering experienced by a black family predominantly two brothers which is analyzed in the story.

Nevertheless, many critical views argue that Baldwin has figuratively used the blues in development of his narrative. The themes have been brought out in the narrative as bebop. Baldwin may have used the element of the blues to emphasize the essence of togetherness in the society. Therefore, it would be correct to argue that Baldwin uses the blues idea in his work because of the structure, the content, the discussion of the theme of individualism and the use of jazz reference in the final section of the story.

The setting in this story is one many can relate to, riding home on a train, bus, taxi cab or even walking home reading the newspaper only to discover a situation or tragedy hitting home. “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” (251). It puts one in a place of discomfort and a feeling of unease. “I couldn’t believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside me. I had kept it outside me for a long time” (251). The narrator experiences combat fatigue hearing the news of his baby brother by the name of Sonny being arrested for using and selling drugs in the street of Harlem. This man was so afraid for his brother that he barely could keep it together while teaching his math class. “A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra” (251). The narrator was overwhelmed by the news that he had read in the newsprint this was too much for him to receive into his spirit early in the morning, in such disbelief he couldn’t digest what was going on mentally. This incident reminds him of growing up with Sonny in Harlem and how things were on the streets and in their own neighborhood.

Based on the structure of the narrative, it is apparent that the Baldwin used the format of blues music in the discussion of his themes. These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. “They were filled with rage” (252). The blues are associated with rock bottom spirits which have been clearly brought out in Baldwin’s story. The narrator is not comfortable with his selfish life. As it can be seen in the story, he prefers leading respectable and safe life. His brother on the other side leads an opposite lifestyle, he is more into substance abuse. “Perhaps it’s possible then to see Baldwin’s title as an invitation to question the very sense of blues” (Sherard 1). This statement by Sherard supports the fact that the blues structure was used in the “Sonny’s Blues” story. The title might be focusing on how Sonny utilized the blues in the discovering himself.

Baldwin has used the structure of the blues within the development of his narrative. “I read about it on the paper, in the subway on my way to work. I read it, and I could not believe it, and read it again.” (251). As mentioned earlier, the blues are synonymous with low spirits. It is evident from the above statement that the narrator of the story was in such a low mood. The narrator is affected by his brother who has been engaging in illegal activities. According to Sherard, “Baldwin’s description of the motion inside the subway cay conveys the rhythm of change…” (Sherard 2). The description of the subway is common element brought ought in the blues. For years the railway has been used in jazz music to symbolize Africa Americans. Therefore, it would be correct to argue that the blues composition has been used in the “Sonny’s Blues” story.

The blues take in account the form and the content of the music, which is also evident in the “Sonny’s Blues” narrative. “You don’t know how much I needed to hear from you” (254). The author of the narrative aims at bringing out the theme of brotherhood in the account. It come about for this reason that he portrays the speaker as a concerned person who is anxious about his brother’s behavior. Notably, the blues motif has always been used to portray the actual status of the society. “So, it is with the history of jazz, and also in the history of the families described in this narrative” (Lee 286). As mentioned earlier, the blues are based on the format and the content. Therefore, the Baldwin has focused on the elaboration of the history of jazz music to elaborate the actual state of the African American society.

The author of the narrative has also used the jazz motif to bring out theme of individualism. “Well, look, Sonny, I’m sorry, don’t get mad. I just don’t altogether get it, that’s all. Name somebody- you know, a jazz musician you admire” (259). Sonny is a pianist who likes to play jazz a genre associated

with individuality. Being competent in the area depends on a person’s capability to improve their skills. It all depends on an individual’s hard work. The author of the story has included this element in the narrative to emphasize on individualism in the society. “Of course, improvisation —players having the freedom to be composers, of solos or of styles—drives individual pieces as well as the history of jazz players having the freedom to be composers” (Lee 286). As it can be seen in this statement, jazz players have the freedom of composing their own songs according to their interest. Therefore, it would be correct to ascertain that Baldwin incorporates an element of jazz players in his narrative to focus on the theme of individualism.

In the final section of the story, Baldwin uses jazz references in order to focus on the theme including many struggles of life. “He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck” (266). Based on the above statement, Baldwin brings jazz references which motivates Sonny to find himself through the art of tune. Those struggles of life that Sonny went through while trying to find himself is compared with the difficult process of learning how to play the piano. “The blues influences bebop at another, more explicitly emotional level in “Sonny’s Blues” (Claborn 89). Similarly, Claborn still argues that the blue played a significant role in Africa American society. Musicians were able to express themselves through music. The same way Baldwin does in his narrative. He tries to bring out the actual status of the African American society.

From a critical review, Baldwin’s uses of the blues in the development of his content and composition supports the thesis statement of this paper. In Sonny’s Blues, the author has included musicians such as Charlie Parker also Louis Armstrong to refer to the characters in the narrative. “Bird! Charlie Parker! Don’t they teach you anything in the goddamn army?” (259).

The inclusion of jazz artists in the story implies that the author was more inclined on the ideas applied in the blues in his narrative. According to Claborn “This story of the doomed double for Robert Johnson, which fulfills the myth of the self-destructive blues musician speeding towards death (embodied in the uncle and the narrator’s brother, Sonny), establishes a direct, patrilineal link between the blues and bebop, the rural and the urban, alcoholism and heroin addiction, and implies that bebop’s heritage more directly derives from blues singers like Robert Johnson than the New Orleans jazz of the 1920s” (Claborn 89). As mentioned earlier, the author uses the life history of jazz musicians to elaborate on the problem facing the African American society.

Although Baldwin uses the blues to support the subject matters in the story, some structural flaws in the narrative might impel readers to question his comprehension of the blues element. “Bird! Charlie Parker! Don’t they teach you anything on the goddamn army?” (259). This statement would impel readers to question whether musicians are related to the army. Sonny argument on military lessons learned from Charlie Parker seems to be out of place. Based on this point of view, it would be correct to argue that the use of the blues ideas in Baldwin’s narrative is not effective. It does not help the support of the themes of the story.

In summary, it is evident from the above argumentation that Baldwin uses the blue in the development of his narrative. The blues element can be seen from the composition, the contents, elaboration of themes such as individualism with the use of jazz reference in the final sections of the story. Despite the opposing views, it is clear from the narrative that the author based his story on the blues. This is a common genre used by black folk to express problems in their own communities.

Work Cited Page

  1. Chapter 9. “Sonny’s Blues.” Class material.
  2. Claborn, John. “Who Set You Feelin’? Harlem, Communal Affect, and the Great Migration
  3. Narrative in James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues.” English Language
  4. Notes, Vol.48, no. 1, 2010, pp.89-100. JSTOR. Accessed Dec.01 2018
  5. Lee, Susanna. “The Jazz Harmonies of Connection and Disconnection in “Sonny’s Blues”
  6. Georgetown University Genre XXXVI- Summer .2004 pp. 285-300 Copyright 2005 By The University of OK
  7. Sherard, Tracey. “Sonny’s Bebop: Baldwin’s ‘Blues Text’ as Intracultural Critique.” African American Review, vol.32, no. 4, 1998, pp.691-705. Academic Search Premier. Accessed Dec.01 2018


  1. Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues” 1957 The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oats, Oxford University Press, 2013 pp 251-267
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“Sonny’s blues” by james baldwin. (2021, Jun 04). Retrieved August 10, 2022 , from

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