“There isn’t any other tale to tell”: Polyphony and Epiphany in “Sonny’s Blues”

Posted: November 14, 2018 in Reading
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James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” depicts the life of a young jazz musician and addict, as seen through the eyes of his older brother. The inciting incident—what prompts the older brother to tell Sonny’s story—is a police report in the newspaper, citing Sonny’s arrest the night before. Reading that brief story, one that reduces his brother to someone who “peddle[s] and us[es] heroin” (813), leads the older-brother-narrator to meditate on the events that led to Sonny’s incarceration. The news of his arrest—albeit a brief item in the paper—plays a critical role in the opening paragraph, providing not only the inciting incident but also a counterpoint for the improvisation that breathes life into Sonny’s character. Despite the narrator’s initial dislike of Sonny’s music, the structure of his own storytelling mimics the composition of jazz, underscoring the kinship of his nonlinear, polyphonic story and the piano playing of his brother.

In the second paragraph of the story, the narrator recounts how he thought about Sonny all day “while [he] taught [his] classes algebra” (813). Placing the narrator in the classroom gives Baldwin the opportunity both to show how the students remind the narrator of Sonny as a youth and how the narrator’s occupation further differentiates him from his younger brother. Unlike the algebra that the narrator teaches, Sonny’s music and his life are disjointed.

As the narrator continues to reflect on his brother’s disjointed life, his thoughts are punctuated with the sound of the school bell and a boy “whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple” (814). Those noises create the offbeat rhythms of syncopation, signature sounds of jazz. The story’s syncopation builds as it takes an unexpected turn when the narrator encounters an old neighborhood friend of Sonny’s, another heroin addict who engages him in a conversation about Sonny’s arrest. That dialogue between the narrator and the junkie leads the narrator’s story back to the newspaper report, while the juke box at a nearby bar “blast[s] away with something black and bouncy” (816).

Along with the story’s syncopation, its polyphony—another defining characteristic of jazz—builds, adding to the story’s voices the words of Sonny, himself, first in the pages of his letter and later in his face-to-face conversations with the narrator. Sonny’s return to New York after the war prompts the narrator to think back on the story of his father witnessing the death of his own brother, a young guitarist run over by a drunken carload of white men. That story, told to the narrator by his mother, introduces not only the voice of his mother but also his father’s voice, indirectly—as well as the scream of the dying brother, the narrator’s uncle, and the guitar strings “flying” (825) as the car rolls over him.

The sounds of the uncle’s gruesome death aren’t the only notes of tragedy sung as the story’s polyphony builds. The narrator’s two-year-old daughter, Grace—whose death makes Sonny’s trouble real—dies from polio: “[T]he reason she hadn’t screamed was that she couldn’t get her breath. And when she did scream, it was the worst sound, Isabel [the narrator’s wife] says, that she’d ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams” (833).

Such tragedies leave little wonder why Sonny or anyone else might turn to music or drugs, or both, as a way, in Sonny’s words, “to keep from shaking to pieces” (837). The link between heroin and jazz is one that Baldwin first makes implicitly, when Sonny mentions Bird (Charlie Parker) to the narrator, who has no idea who Parker is (828). Though Sonny doesn’t refer to Parker’s heroin use, his addiction—as legendary as his musical genius and inextricably tied to it—is likely in the forefront of the minds of many readers who see the parallels between Parker and Sonny.

That implicit connection between music and heroin becomes explicit later in the story when Sonny reflects on the singing voice of the tambourine player at the street revival: “‘When she was singing before,’ said Sonny, abruptly, ‘her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes—when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant—and sure’” (836).

In the last pages of the story, the narrator accompanies Sonny to a jazz club downtown, where he listens to him perform. Finally, with that performance, Sonny’s piano and his bandmates’ bass, trumpet, and drums join the polyphonic voices of the narrative. For the narrator, the quartet’s jazz remains a foreign language. In the narrator’s words, “I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard” (843). Yet despite the alien quality of what he hears, the narrator experiences an epiphany in the night club—not about the particular notes he hears, but rather about their aim:

He [Creole] 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. (843)

With those words, the narrator begins to make meaning—not of Sonny’s particular jazz stylings but of his striving to tell old stories in new ways. The climax of Sonny’s set is also the epiphany of the narrator’s own polyphonic, syncopated, narrative. As the narrator observes of Creole, Sonny’s bandleader, he “seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues” (843). And as Baldwin’s readers listen, they may say: These are his brother’s blues, too.

Work Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 813-44.

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