Each of the characters in “Sonny’s Blues” is living a life that is, in some way, governed by suffering, but it is the significant instances of salvation and relief that prevent “Sonny’s Blues” from being utterly hopeless and tragic. Salvation and relief come in many forms in the story, some better than others, but it is the final invocation of the “cup of trembling” (a quote from the Biblical Book of Isaiah) that suggests a relief from suffering that might endure.
Sonny’s drug use is one way of finding relief from suffering. He describes the feeling of heroin as something that makes him feel “distant” and “in control,” the latter being a feeling that “you’ve got to have” sometimes. Sonny, then, has turned to drugs in order to escape the feeling that the suffering in his life is not within his control. His drug use, of course, ultimately compounds his suffering instead of allowing him to escape it.
Sonny’s music is a more complex example of relief from suffering. While the narrator initially considers music to be a way for Sonny to shirk his responsibilities, he ultimately realizes that Sonny’s music fuels his life; it’s a way for him to make his suffering meaningful, and without it he would likely succumb to despair. In the passage in which the narrator listens to Sonny play at the bar, Baldwin makes clear that Sonny’s music is never separate from his suffering; playing piano is not an instance of pure joy in a horrible world, but rather an art that allows Sonny to make sense of suffering and turn it into something beautiful. This then lets him communicate with others and make people feel less alone. While listening to Sonny, the narrator realizes that music has the power to “help us to be free,” in his case because it helps him, for the first time, acknowledge his own sadness.
The final sentence of “Sonny’s Blues” describes a glass of milk and scotch that the narrator has given his brother. Baldwin writes, “it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.” This references a Bible passage that describes God taking suffering away from humanity: “I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling…; thou shalt no more drink it again.” The story’s ending is ambiguous, but it certainly suggests that Sonny’s music has taken suffering—at least temporarily—from both Sonny and the narrator. This is a complicated image, because it is both optimistic and precarious—the cup, like the relief it symbolizes, seems like it might be about to topple. The story has painted a detailed and explicit picture of the magnitude of suffering in Harlem, and Baldwin isn’t asking the reader to accept that music will cure it. However, this final moment suggests a way forward; music can take suffering and make it meaningful. In other words, it can’t cure suffering, but it can make the burdens of suffering easier to bear.
Salvation and Relief ThemeTracker
Salvation and Relief Quotes in Sonny’s Blues
I feel like a man who’s been trying to climb up out of some deep, real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up there, outside. I got to get outside.
“You got to hold on to your brother,” she said, “and don’t let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him. You going to be evil with him many a time. But don’t you forget what I told you, you hear?…You may not be able to stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you’s there.”
“I can make a living at it. But what I don’t seem to be able to make you understand is that it’s the only thing I want to do.”
“Well, Sonny,” I said, gently, “you know people can’t always do exactly what they want to do—“
“No, I don’t know that,” said Sonny, surprising me. “I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?”
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….As the singing filled the air the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on something within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last.
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. 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.
They were not about anything very new. He 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, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.