James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is about a black family in twentieth-century America, particularly about the un-named narrator and his younger brother Sonny. After time in jail for peddling heroin, Sonny returns to his brother’s home in a housing project in Harlem.
At the end of the story, Sonny, out of jail and back home with his brother, rediscovers his lifeline, the one thing that makes his life worth living, his music. But his first attempts to play piano are rocky:
And Sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seem to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck (49)
The rhythm of the sentences mirrors Sonny’s panicky attempts to play jazz. The first two sentences start with ‘And’, a short word that sounds like a gulp. In the third sentence, one can almost hear Sonny try to play. The sentence is full of clauses of different lengths, that mirror the lengths of the musical phrases. So Sonny and the piano stammer, they “started one way”, “got scared”, “stopped,” started another way” and so on. What is so brilliant about this passage is that you don’t have to know anything about jazz to hear it. Each word contributes to the effect. Five Stars.