Metaphor in “Sonny’s Blues” Story by Baldwin

The proponent of this study attempted to figure out the importance of the title “Sonny’s Blues” in contributing to a theme in the story. At first glance, and without the benefit of a thorough analysis, the first thing that came to mind was the common understanding of the meaning of “blues” or “having the blues”, and that is of course linked to the idea of depression. However, after an in-depth analysis of Baldwin’s short story, it was made clear that the title referred to a popular music genre called Jazz. Thus, the title contributed to the development of a particular theme in the story by using “Blues music” as a metaphor on how struggling African Americans tried to their best to triumph over adversity.

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Blues Music

Although there is no agreement when it comes to interpreting the role that blues music played in Baldwin’s short story, at least, it can be argued that Jazz was the main genre and the sub-genre was “Blues music” (Jimoh 210). According to an analysis found in the book: Spiritual, Blues, and Jazz People in African American Fiction, “Much of the music of Sonny’s musical master, Charlie Parker, in contrast to Sonny’s assessment, is Blues-based. Parker’s music extends and expands other music in his environment, including Blues, popular music, Broadway theater music, and concert hall music. One cannot speak with clarity about Charlie Parker’s music without acknowledging the aforementioned musical influences, which were at the core of his innovations and improvisations (Jimoh 210). It is imperative to mention Charlie Parker not only because Sonny utilized his character to introduce his type of music to his older brother, but also due to the fact that Parker’s style mirrored the unpredictable narrative of Sonny’s existence. Later on it will be clarified that this unpredictability and the lack of order was the main reason why the two brothers were always fighting. However, at the end, Sonny’s older brother will have an eye-opening experience, and he will interpret Jazz, Blues music, Charlie Parker’s music and Sonny’s music not as the culprit, but a coping mechanism.

Blues Music and Race

It is not enough to say that Sonny dabbled with Jazz and Blues music in order to justify the creation of Baldwin’s title for his short story. It is also important to have a deeper understanding of this type of music, especially when it comes to Blues music. According to a controversial statement from an avid performer of this kind of melody: “White blues performers can never be blues people, because the blues is not something they live but something they do – which makes all the difference in the world. What distinguishes the blues person from the blues performer is a cultural and racial make-up, which can only be inherited by a descendant of an ex-American slave” (Adelt 1). In this passage, the readers are alerted by the fact that Blues music is distinguished by its association with the African American people in the same way that Gospel music linked to the African slaves that came via the slave trade.

In this passage, the author wanted the readers to realize that the socio-economic hardships that colored the way people understand and appreciate Gospel music must become the same standard of measurement to clarify the meaning of Blues music. Without a doubt, regardless of color or creed, musician from different socio-economic background has the capability to pick up a guitar or caress piano keys in order to produce a distinct Blues sound. However, only a person who descended from African slaves can have a deeper understanding of the meaning and significance of Blues music. At the end, the older brother experienced a psychological breakthrough, and he said: “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” (Baldwin 147). In this regard, a layer has been peeled when it comes to appreciating the mindset of the author when he fused the name of a main character and a special type of music to create a title for his short story.

Race and Socio-Economic Factors

There are other writers who were able to pick up the connecting between Blues music, race, and socio-economic factors. In one commentary, the authors pointed out that: “Jazz, as both a musical and cultural concept, can be a powerful way to conceptualize research which examines the dynamics of race and racism. Given the development of Jazz as an aesthetic expression of protest and opposition, specifically for African Americans, we can think of Jazz as always already political (Dixson and Rousseau 216). Here is another example of how to distinguish Sonny’s music from other music genres and highlighted the value of connecting this type of music in the development of the narrative’s key themes. It was mentioned earlier that Blues music is something similar to Gospel music with regards to the enslavement of African Americans. It is important to point out that when Baldwin wrote this piece the African Americans were caught between two different worlds.

They were sandwiched between the world of Emancipation defined by the abolition of slavery, and at the same time, they are hemmed in by another world, the one of extreme prejudice and segregation. When Baldwin created the title he was in the same predicament. In theory, African Americans were considered as free men, and more importantly they had the rights of American citizens. On the other hand, the distribution of freedom and privileges and the way to enjoy these things were never equal between a man with the blood of Negro slaves and a man with white skin. The sense of hopelessness reverberated in the following statements: “But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster” (Baldwin 129). Without a doubt the author wanted his readers to see the inescapable misery of living in the poorer section of New York during that time period.

Struggles of African Americans

After carefully crafting the backdrop for the significance and impact of Blues music in the lives of Sonny and his older brother, it was easier for readers to make the connection between Sonny’s music as a metaphor to understand the struggles of African Americans. This conception was illustrated through a description of a young man that the narrator hated and he said: “He was sort of shaking his head and his eyes looked strange, as though they were about to cross. The bright sun deadened his damp dark brown skin and it made his eyes look yellow and showed up the dirt in his kinked hair. He smelled funky” (Baldwin 124). The idea that African Americans were drowning from the effects of socio-cultural factors that were caused in large part by the color of their skin was magnified in an analysis of Baldwin’s narrative as shown in the following: “In Sonny’s Blues, Sonny wants to escape many things: Harlem, poverty his drug addiction, and underlying all this, his own inner helplessness and despair” (Akhtar and O’Neill 99).

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Although, Blues music which was a powerful metaphor to describe pain and struggles, this does not mean that only the heroin addict was drowning in self-loathing and helplessness. His older brother may have found a respectable job that made him perhaps a pillar in the community, but this does not mean that he did not have his own demons that he had to battle with every single day. Even if he was shown to have better access to funds as evidenced by the way he was able to give money to an acquaintance that looked like a homeless man, this does not automatically suggests that he did not have financial troubles. One of the glaring examples of his struggles with money was indirectly described through the narration of the circumstances that caused the premature death of his two year old daughter.

Blues Misunderstood

The title’s construction played an important part in understanding a specific feature of a key theme in the narrative, and that is how the main characters, especially the two brothers tried to make sense of each other’s lives. From the point of view of Sonny’s older brother, Blues music was the anthem for rebels, especially young African American men who were unwilling to conform to certain social conventions. According to one commentary Blues music is the music of resistance (Commins 117). Things came to a head when the mother died and both men had to confront unresolved issues in an empty kitchen right after the funeral. As both men faced each other in that lonely spot that reminded them of beautiful memories when their mother was still alive, they were two glaring and contrasting images. On one hand, there stood a soldier who was given furlough on account of his mother’s death. On the other side of the confrontation was a teenager who was so desperate to become a man, and yet he did not know how. In that critical moment, Blues music was a major factor for their disagreement and a reason for hurting each other’s feelings.

Sonny tried to reassure the soldier in front of him that he was doing his best in order to think about his future and to find his own way in the world. However, the older brother on the other side of the discussion had no way to express his faith, that he was assured that his brother will turn out a man that he can be proud of, one that he could boast to the world as a member of his immediate family. The reluctance of the older brother to embrace his younger brother’s unique attribute was due to his conception of Blues music. The older brother lamented after hearing the term Jazz uttered for the first time: “Well, the word had never before sounded as heavy, as real, as it sounded that afternoon in Sonny’s mouth. I just looked at him, and I was probably frowning a real frown by this time. I simply couldn’t see why on earth he’d want to spend his time hanging around nightclubs, clowning around on bandstands” (Baldwin 134). In this particular instance, it was perfectly clear that older brother looked down on the younger brother’s future prospects and the younger lad’s aspirations for his life. This is also the root cause of their conflicts that forced them to live worlds apart.

Blues as a Metaphor for Sonny’s Life

The title’s purpose came to the fore when the author pointed out how the older brother misunderstood the meaning and significance of the Blues music. The older brother spouted out venom when he described the significance of Blues music in the life of his beloved brother and he said: “I didn’t like the way he carried himself, loose and dreamlike all the time, and I didn’t like his friends, and his music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led. It sounded just that weird and disordered” (Baldwin 138). It is at this point that readers will come to know the reason for the inclusion of Charlie Parker’s music and the commentary mentioned earlier that Parker was known for his improvisations. In other words, Blues music is not only about the struggles of African Americans, but it is also made distinct by improvisations and clever thinking.

Blues Appreciated

At the latter part of the story, readers came to the realization that the author crafted the title in that manner to call attention to the significance of understanding and appreciating Blues music in its proper context in order to resolve the various dilemma and to understand the key themes in the story. A wonderful description of Sonny’s virtuosity with the piano as he churned out Blues music signaled the older brother’s born again experience when it comes to accepting his brother and his music and this was shown in the following passages: “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. And the face I saw on Sonny I’d never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and at the same time things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and the fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there” (Baldwin 147). In other words, Blues music was a metaphor that one can use to describe Sonny’s life. At the end, the older brother understood that Blues music is not disordered and weak, but it was a means to harness every crazy and broken aspects of an African American man or woman’s life and weave it into something beautiful.


The author was correct in crafting a title that fused the name of one of the main characters and Blues music, because this type of music speaks volumes regarding the struggles of African American people in a world that oppressed them and withhold privileges from them simply because they were descendants of African slaves. The said title forced readers to connect the meaning and significance of Blues music in the lives of Sonny and the other characters in the story, because Blues music was interpreted not as disordered and weak. The improvisations combined with the unique sound it produced was a metaphor as to how African Americans tried to create a semblance of control and beauty in a life full of bittersweet memories, struggles and triumph.

Works Cited

Adelt, Ulrich. Blues Music in the Sixties: A Story in Black and White. New Jersey, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010. Print.

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Akhtar, Salman and May O’Neill. Hopelessness: Developmental, Cultural, and Clinical Realms. London, UK: 2015. Print.

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” Going to Meet the Man. New York: Random House, 1984. Print.

Commins, Gary. If Only We Could See. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015. Print.

Dixson, Arienne and Celia Rousseau. Critical Race Theory in Education. New York, NY: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Jimoh, Yemisi. Spiritual, Blues, and Jazz People in African American Fiction. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2002. Print.

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