Heroin and Music in Sonny's Blues Research Paper

Excerpt from Research Paper :

Sonny's Outline

James Baldwin. "Sonny's Blues."


Keith Richards. Life.

Question Under Investigation: What is the relationship between music and drugs in James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" and why does the character of Sonny need the two things?

James Baldwin utilizes the concepts of music and drugs in a similar way, as a means by which the character of Sonny can escape from his real life which he find intolerable, as indicated in the very title "Sonny's Blues."

First Body Paragraph

Topic Sentence: Sonny has dreams of becoming a great jazz musician, a dream which had been quashed by his older brother who could not see how much the music meant to Sonny, which in turn led to depression and distress.

Major evidence: Sonny wants to play jazz music; gets indoctrinated into Harlem music scene and drug

c. The lack of support from his brother sends Sonny to other people for encouragement, people who are not good for him.

Second Body Paragraph

a. Topic Sentence: The roots of Sonny's problems with drugs are all to do with the unaffectionate and uncaring nature of his family life, which he salves by filling his life with music and then heroin.

b. Major Evidence: Sonny and his brother are not close; didn't even know Sonny was arrested until he read it in the paper (80).

c. The narrator and Sonny are in a dysfunctional relationship and it has deteriorated to the point that Sonny does not ask his brother for help.

IV. Third Body Paragraph

a. Topic Sentence: Sonny's older brother is a teacher who does not have time in his life for Sonny which is what leads the younger boy on the path to trouble and his subsequent heroin addiction.

b. Heroin is a very difficult drug to get free of; Burroughs quote; Father was alcoholic and emotionally abusive (86).

c. The addiction to heroin has led Sonny on a very different path from his brother, but the two share a past which was difficult and they have both had to suffer a great deal.

V. Fourth Body Paragraph

a. Topic Sentence: Sonny had no authority figure in his formative years and the narrator had promised that he would look after the younger boy. The breach of this promise led Sonny to learn that he alone would have to find ways to save himself.

b. Evidence: mother made the narrator promise to watch out for Sonny (91).

c. The narrator did not fulfill his promise to take care of Sonny and feels personal guilt over his drug addiction.

VI. Fifth Body Paragraph

a. Topic Sentence: Music functions in the same way that drugs do for Sonny, as a means by which he can escape his reality.

b. Evidence: Keith Richards quote; narrator watches Sonny play (104)

c. By listening to Sonny play the blues, the narrator realizes how badly he needs to play the music and has an epiphany of his own

VII. Conclusion:

Sonny's Blues

"Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind / Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves / The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach / Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow / Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands / Will all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves / Let me forget about today until tomorrow." ~ Bob Dylan

In James Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues," the reader is introduced to two brothers who seem very different, but are in reality, both suffering from their pasts and trying to mask the pain; one man doing so with family and tradition and the other doing so with narcotic addiction. Each man is escaping a past of dysfunction and using something to balm their pain without confronting or dealing with their sufferings. The elder brother is a family man with a stable job as a teacher and a degree of financial success. He has carved a niche for himself with a wife and children and a home of his own, but despite having what society tells him he is supposed to want does not seem to feel particularly emotional about his life. This man is neither wholly happy nor is he unhappy with his existence. Instead, he is seemingly devoid of any emotion except for concern about those around him such as his younger brother, although that only appears in times of crisis. Sonny, the younger brother, on the other hand is a man completely controlled by his emotions and by his life history which has led him to make dangerous choices including the use of heroin which has landed him in prison. The past haunts him and the present is impossible to handle and so he determines that he must escape the reality of the world through some artificial manner; both drugs and music become salves for his emotional pain, one destructive and one obsessive. The reader sympathizes more with Sonny than his brother because his emotional struggle is relatable to everyone who has experienced trauma. Therefore "Sonny's Blues" presents a complex picture of drug use as a means of coping with sorrow and fear but does so without treating the subject harshly. Author Baldwin neither supports Sonny's decisions, nor does he vilify him for his choices. In order to combat his unhappiness, Sonny becomes obsessed with one diversion or another because he did not know what else to do. When he was or is sober, Sonny uses music as an opiate to calm his saddened soul. Music and drugs function as symbols for the only two ways in which Sonny has found himself able to cope at all: one which could grant him success and another which could only lead to imprisonment or death. James Baldwin utilizes the concepts of music and drugs in a similar way, as a means by which the character of Sonny can escape from his real life which he find intolerable, as indicated in the very title "Sonny's Blues."

Sonny has dreams of becoming a great jazz musician, a dream which had been quashed by his older brother who could not see how much the music meant to Sonny, which in turn led to depression and distress. He is a brilliant musician able to elicit emotion and depth but that does not matter to his older brother who understands nothing about music. Sonny had countered that he was born to play music. He says, "I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?" (Baldwin 93). This is one of the questions at the heart of James Baldwin's narrative. Each brother is consumed by what they think is right for them and the contradiction of external forces. The narrator wants Sonny to lead a traditional life like himself but this is counter to Sonny's own ambitions. From the narrator's attitudes it seems that he is not doing what he really wants to do, although the reader is not given an indication of where his true passion lies. Refusing to support Sonny leads the younger boy to seek out people who will support him, people who also supported other, less positive habits and desires. The drug-riddled environment of Harlem threatened to destroy his life. Unfortunately, there is an inextricable link between drug use and music in many parts of the world, which was certainly true of Harlem, New York. In the first blog post, the author states:

Playing music puts me in circles that sometimes I don't want to be in -- namely those that involve a lot of pot smoking and drinking and possibly dope and ketamine and ecstasy and acid and god knows what else. These things don't tempt me, per say, but being around constant lushness is surely annoying to those who don't imbibe, only because you've got one person over there with glossy eyes and a slight (or slightly more intense) escape from reality, and another person over here with not-glossy eyes and complete presence in reality (blog 1).

Both music and drugs are means of becoming separate from the real world and the horrors that are experienced in daily life. When you see people around you who are using a high amount of narcotics and who are playing beautiful, soulful music, it is an extremely tempting thing to take up yourself, particularly for someone like Sonny who is looking for some means of escape. For years Sonny had been using heroin in order to conceal the pain of his life. For Sonny, the use of heroin was "not so much to play. It's to stand it, to be able to make it at all. On any level. In order to keep from shaking to pieces" (99). For Sonny, heroin was a seductive outlet for his blues, but he was aware all along what the drugs could do to him. He was looking for…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited:

Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." The Norton Introduction to Literature, Portable Tenth Ed. Ed.

Alison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. 2010. Print.

Burroughs, William S. & Soloman, Carl. Junky. New York, NY: Penguin. 2003. Print.

Dingle, Genevieve. "Dance, Drugs and Escape: The Club Scene in Literature, Film and Television Since the Late 1980s." The Art in Psychotherapy. (34). 2007. 321-30. Print.

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