“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it” (137). The unnamed narrator of James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” is preparing to listen to, to hear, his brother Sonny play jazz piano, backed up by his fellow musicians on bass fiddle, drums, and horn. They are about to improvise Am I Blue. The narrator has never heard Sonny play, never experienced what this music will reveal about Sonny, about the narrator, about us all . . . if we can hear it. James Baldwin heard. He speaks through the narrator, explaining what it means to hear, to create, such music, such language:
“And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.” (137)
The prophet Isaiah was called to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, comfort all who mourn, offering a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, anointing with the oil of gladness (Isaiah 61: 1-3). Wouldn’t it be nice if all our poems and stories, our literary prose, the music, could do this? From the afflicted, the brokenhearted, there is mostly silence. No need to bother with beauty, the music of language, ears having turned stone from the twitter of breaking news—downturns, collateral damage, the poor always with us homeless on street corners holding up cardboard sermons, the horror, the horror. This is dangerous music, an awful language; we hear it, write it at our own risk. Baldwin explains that the artist enters the arena
“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, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” (139)
Haven’t we been trying to comprehend this light most of our life, the light that shines against the sometimes darkness of childhood; against teenage only-ness; against the fast-black-V-8 L.A. night, the curves, the sheer drop of Pacific Coast Highway One; suicidal nostalgia of the 1960s—Goodnight Saigon, Chu Lai, Da Nang, Quang Tri, Hue, Khe Sanh; Goodnight Selma, Birmingham, Lorraine Motel, Memphis; MacArthur Park, White Rabbit, A Whiter Shade Of Pale; The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin; John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. Then somehow, we received the grace of a quiet lamp at 4:00 a.m., black coffee, a square of dark chocolate, sharpened Ticonderoga pencils, the graph-lined pages of a laboratory notebook, each of us waiting for what might come, might turn out to be, be heard as, poetry.
And we hear that poetry, that music—strobe of sines and cosines; time signatures; earth smell of oil paint, pulse of fingertips in clay; footlights, gasp of voices in a darkened theatre, sudden laughter; halftime locker room; music of syllables, words spinning; beauty in tangible goods and services; joy of chemical reactions; pathway of map, attachment to place, free and ordered; a body, a mind, healed; the Word that spoke the world, spoken again.
Sonny interprets his song for his listeners:
“Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. . . . 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.” (140)
Like all single-minded artists, Sonny made his song our song, each of us discovering the beauty and music of a language transforming both artist and listener, writer and reader, our song.
Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” Going To Meet The Man, by James Baldwin, Vintage, 1995, pp. 101-41.