Posted: March 10th, 2022
¶ … Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, “The Sorrow Songs,” by W.E.B. Du Bois, and “Am I Blue,” by Alice Walker. Specifically, it will discuss the use of the blues in all three works, and how music influences each story. In this paper I will argue that music, specifically the blues, play an important and valuable role in supporting the characters and making the stories more believable and moving. Music has always played a strong part in black American’s lives, from the old-time Negro spirituals to urban rap today, and this is why the authors use them to illustrate the most important themes of their stories.
THE BLUES IN THREE WORKS
Each author uses the blues in a different way, but the music plays an important part in each story, making them more readable, and the characters more sympathetic to the reader. The blues is a form of music that originated in black Harlem in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. It has always been a kind of melancholy music that illustrates the unhappiness and unsettled lives of black Americans.
In “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin uses music to bring two brothers together that have never gotten along..”..it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind” (Baldwin). This shows how much the two brothers did not get along. They were riding in a cab together, but they did not talk, they both looked out their “separate windows.” It was like they had a wall between them. “Sonny, you hear me? I hear you, but you never hear me.”
Sonny plays the blues because it is a type of sad music, which tells how he feels about his life. It is also a very important type of music for Black people; it is part of their culture. The music is “…the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must always be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell” (Baldwin).
The music plays an important part in the book, and brings the brothers back together. Sonny has trouble playing, because he has trouble in his life, and the music is too close for him not to have problems. “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” (Baldwin).
Sonny has “gotten stuck” at other times during the story. He has a drug addiction, and the last part of the story makes us hope that as he plays the piano, and creates a new relationship with his brother, he will also be able to kick his addiction, and create even better music. When his brother finally understands, it is a sweet moment. “Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face. He seemed to have found, right there, beneath his fingers, a damn brand-new piano” (Baldwin).
In the end, the two brothers really do learn more about each other through Sonny’s music, which is somewhat funny, because Sonny’s brother never really liked his music. He thought that Sonny could not be successful at music, and that he should choose a profession that was more practical and businesslike.
In “The Sorrow Songs,” Du Bois celebrates the Negro folksongs that became the blues in Harlem. “But the true Negro folk-song still lives in the hearts of those who have heard them truly sung and in the hearts of the Negro people” (Du Bois). These folksongs have always played an important and vital role in the lives of black people, from slave times to the present. Just as the blues form an important part of all three of these stories, the music has always traveled with black people wherever they wandered. These songs are not happy, which is why they are called “the blues.” “They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways” (Du Bois). These early folksongs tell the story of black Americans, from their early lives in Africa, to their bondage and eventual freedom. As the author says, “The ten master songs I have mentioned tell in word and music of trouble and exile, of strife and hiding; they grope toward some unseen power and sigh for rest in the End” (Du Bois). While the blues are a metaphor for Sonny and his brother’s relationship in “Sonny’s Blues,” in “Sorrow Songs” they are not a metaphor, they are the subject and the theme of the piece. Du Bois wants to show how music is the backbone of black life, and the blues are the major part of that backbone. They describe black life perfectly, and create understanding of the black experience in many listeners. Both pieces also use the music to evoke hope in the character, and in the reader, just as Du Bois says the songs evoke hope in the singers. He notes, “Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins” (Du Bois). In “Sonny’s Blues,” the blues give hope for the two brother’s lives as the book ends. In “Sorrow Songs,” the folksongs evoke hope even when life was at its worst, and the blacks were in bondage, just as Du Bois’ “Sorrow Songs” evokes hope and change at the end of the essay. The blues are a form of music that acknowledges its roots in the black folksongs of Du Bois’ essay, and today they cross culture, with white artists singing the blues, too. This is a measure of their popularity, their meaning, and their depth.
In “Am I Blue?” Alice Walker uses the title of a famous blues song sung by legendary Ethel Waters to evoke a mood for her essay before one word is written. There is no mention of music in the story, and so at first glance, this essay seems removed from the other two works, where music plays an important and vital role in the pieces. However, Walker’s use of a title of famous blues music sets the tone of the piece. The reader is not surprised when the horse “Blue” is blue, of course he is. Walker gives him human characteristics, and the foremost of these is his name, which suits the lonely horse perfectly. Just like most people, Blue is happiest when he has a friend or lover by his side, and he is sad or “blue” when he is alone. Blue evokes the feeling of the blues in his solitary life, and he eventually learns to use his loneliness as a barrier, like many of us do. “And what that meant was that he had put up a barrier within to protect himself from further violence; all the apples in the world wouldn’t change that fact” (Walker).
Suffering is always associated with the blues, and each of these works contains suffering and pain. Du Bois shows the suffering of the slaves, and how their music helped give them hope. Baldwin shows the life of the inner city blacks, and how they suffered from poverty, drug addiction, and loneliness. The blues helped them escape, and gave their lives meaning and hope. Walker shows the life of a tortured animal, and writes for animal rights activists everywhere when she shows Blue’s suffering and pain. She uses the blues to evoke a mood and a feeling of hopelessness rather than hope, along with pain and loneliness. Her story is the most disturbing because it ends hopelessly, with Walker unable to eat meat because of her sad experience with the lonely Blue. “I am eating misery, I thought, as I took the first bite. And spit it out” (Walker). She uses the blues to surround the story with their melancholy and sadness, while others use them to infuse their stories with hope for the future. The music is important to each story in its own unique way, and none of the pieces would be the same without this infusion of music and its meaning. Music has always played a strong part in black American’s lives, from the old-time Negro spirituals to urban rap today, and this is why the authors use them to illustrate the most important themes of their stories.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Sorrow Songs.” Bartleby.com. 2003. 24 March 2003. http://www.bartleby.com/114/14.html
Tsomondo, Thorell. “No Other Tale to Tell: ‘Sonny’s Blues’ and ‘Waiting for the Rain.'” Critique XXXVI. Vol. 3. (1995): 195-209.
Walker, Alice. “Am I Blue?” Utne Reader. Jan./Feb. 1989, pp. 98-102.
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