While drinking my third cup of coffee, and reading all this talk of heroin and Charlie Parker, I got to thinking of James Baldwin’s beautiful short story “Sonny’s Blues” (1958).
Around the same time that certain Beats were extolling the subconscious primitive impulses of “negroes” (including “white negroes”) and “negro music,” James Baldwin published this humane story about Sonny, a heroin addicted jazz pianist, told from the first person perspective of his brother, a high school algebra teacher. As the brother relates Sonny’s story, the narrative introduces the theme of suffering and its connection to artistic expression.
Throughout the story, the brother worries about what Sonny’s life has come to, and while he is currently clean, the brother fears a relapse that would lead to his early demise—a demise that would indicate his own inadequate brotherly keeping.
In one scene, there is a street revival with some women singing, “Tis the old ship of Zion,…it has rescued many a thousand.” The brother drily thinks, “Not a soul under the sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been rescued. Nor had they seen much in the way of rescue work being done around them.” Having heard this song countless times, it seems that no one is any longer capable of truly taking what it says to heart.
As the gospel singers continue their song, the two brothers hold a conversation where the brother agrees to go hear Sonny play music that night, possibly with the hope of doing some kind of rescue work himself. During the conversation, Sonny broaches the topic of his heroin problem, which leads to the following exchange:
Sonny says, “…listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through—to sing like that. It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer so much…”
His bother responds, “But we just agreed…that there’s no way not to suffer. Isn’t it just better, then, just to—take it?”
Sonny: “But nobody just takes it…Everybody tries not to…”
Brother: “I don’t want to see you—die—trying not to suffer.”
Sonny: “I won’t…die trying not to suffer…”
But he continues, “It’s terrible sometimes, inside…that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out—that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen…”
Speaking about his previous attempts to escape drugs, Sonny warns his brother, “It can come again…”
Later that night, the brother is at a club listening to Sonny play piano with the band. He struggles at first, but then the band goes into “Am I Blue,” and Sonny’s playing begins to shine through. The brother thinks:
“Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet made it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth.”
As he reflects on Sonny’s and his family’s past, the song comes to an end. The brother orders up a “Scotch and milk” for Sonny, who takes a sip, and then places it on the piano. As the band resumes its play, the brother thinks that the drink “glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.”
Some critics claim that Baldwin is here presenting Sonny as a sacrificial artist who takes on suffering—“the cup or trembling” (cf. Isaiah 51:17-22)—in order to rescue the rest of us. Perhaps. Sonny recognizes that everybody suffers, and everybody tries not to suffer. For him, there are multiple ways of trying not to suffer. Heroin is one way, and jazz is another. One way is productive and beautiful, and the other is death. But Sonny also tells his brother that family and a career teaching algebra might be another way. And of course, there is the way of the “the old ship of Zion.”
Which way is best? Somehow the superiority of the way of artistic sacrifice seems to be the point of the story, except that it is the clear-eyed, stable brother who is able to give an account of it.
Regardless, whether in music or words, the story points to the notion that in order to never know lament, one must “Never No Lament.”