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5.0 out of 5 stars Probably typical of a bygone period, 16 Sep 2013
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This review is from: Sonny's Blues (Penguin 60s) (Paperback)
This short story is in a way the precursor of Just Above My Head. The first half or so is drastically bleak and so accumulative of dramatic horror that it makes me think of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth who definitely protests too much.

We are dealing here with two brothers, the elder one being an algebra school teacher, the younger one being a musician, a pianist, after a long period of erring and loitering on the wrong side of life, needle and company limited and incorporated.

This is redoubled with their father who was also the elder brother of his younger brother he saw one Saturday night being run over into a pulp by a band of white people in a car in a hit and run that presented no possible recourse or appeal. Accidental death is not a crime, is it? At least when the accidental murderer is white and the victim black.

Our elder brother learns about it from their mother just after their father's death. The elder brother is sent to the war in Europe and during that time the younger brother, Sonny, is to survive with his elder brother's wife's family. He plays the piano all he can till they find out he has been missing school. Then he runs away, into the navy, and then when he comes back he gets into the needle till he ends up in a special medical center. When he comes out he is accepted by his elder brother but with a tremendous suspicion.

Add to that the fact that the elder brother has two sons but between them there was a girl who did not survive polio and died at the age of two. The same situation as Hall Montana's in Just Above My Head.

The whole story is built around the transmission of past horror from one generation to the next and thus the perpetuation of evil forever. The mother of the two brothers, on the burial day of their father, told her elder son about the brother of their father for this elder brother to take special care of his younger brother when she is gone. In other words she transmits to him, and them, the idea that nothing ever changes, that this is going to be forever.

"His brother got killed . . . when he was just a little younger than you are now. I knew him. He was a fine boy. He was maybe a little full of the devil, but he didn't mean nobody no harm." . . . "He used to have a job in the mill . . . and, like all young folks, he just liked to perform on Saturday nights. Saturday nights, him and your father would drift around to different places, go to dances and things like that, or just sit around with people they knew, and your father's brother would sing, he had a fine voice, and play along with himself on his guitar. Well, this particular Saturday night, him and your father was coming home from some place, and they were both a little drunk and there was a moon that night, it was bright like day. Your father's brother was feeling kind of good, and he was whistling to himself, and he had his guitar slung over his shoulder. They was coming down a hill and beneath them was a road that turned off from the highway. Well, your father's brother, being always kind of frisky, decided to run down this hill, and he did, with that guitar banging and clanging behind him, and he ran across the road, and he was making water behind a tree. And your father was sort of amused at him and he was still coming down the hill, kind of slow. Then he heard a car motor and that same minute his brother stepped from behind the tree, into the road, in the moonlight. And he started to cross the road. And your father started to run down the hill, he says he don't know why. This car was full of white men. They was all drunk, and when they seen your father's brother they let out a great whoop and holler and they aimed the car straight at him. They was having fun, they just wanted to scare him, the way they do sometimes, you know. But they was drunk. And I guess the boy, being drunk, too, and scared, kind of lost his head. By the time he jumped it was too late. Your father says he heard his brother scream when the car rolled over him, and he heard the wood of that guitar when it give, and he heard them strings go flying, and he heard them white men shouting, and the car kept on a-going and it ain't stopped till this day. And, time your father got down the hill, his brother weren't nothing but blood and pulp." . . . "Till the day he died he weren't sure but that every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother."

Not only does it perpetuate the crime, but it also perpetuates the fear or fright in front of any white because the identity of the killer or killers is not asserted, found. We understand the hoods of KKK murderers: it protects their identity but in order for the Blacks to be afraid of any white man who could have been the one under the hood. In other words being white for the blacks is just a curse on the blacks that they cannot in anyway evade.

This produces a horrible state of mind in Sonny. Suffering is part of living. You cannot live without suffering and you can only look for means to partly alleviate the inner torture this suffering is. Sonny tries to explain that to his brother on the morning of the epiphany of the tale:

"No, there's no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem-well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you're suffering for it. You know?" I said nothing. "Well you know," he said, impatiently, "why do people suffer? Maybe it's better to do something to give it a reason, any reason."

The epiphany comes in the evening of that Sunday when Sonny takes his elder brother to the club where he is playing jazz with a quartet, him being the pianist. We have two dimensions in that epiphany. The younger brother entering the music little by little through an enormous effort and struggle that is painful in many ways but that leads him to the bottomless rock bottom of life and transcending awareness of the eternal cosmic energy in himself and in the world. An d that is joy, bliss, happiness.

The elder brother sees the struggle and little by little understands what music is all about. It is a way to invest the suffering of the whole world, and the personal suffering of the musician or musicians into the music because the music enables such mergers. Then the music becomes liberation because it tames and controls the suffering of life.

"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. . . 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, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. . . He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever."

This is the very theme that is going to be developed in Just Above My Head. There is though no sexual dimension to this tale. The sexual dimension of music, the possibility for music to express and carry the love of two people and become the medium between them is still to come.

But the last metaphor is strange. The scotch and milk the elder brother has delivered to Sonny and that Sonny puts on his piano becomes a religious symbol when he starts playing again:

". . . a Scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny. . . . then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling."

And the Bible reverberates in this ending:

12 1The burden of the word of the LORD for Israel, saith the LORD, which stretcheth forth the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the earth, and formeth the spirit of man within him.
2 Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of trembling [My emphasis] unto all the people round about, when they shall be in the siege both against Judah and against Jerusalem.
3 And in that day will I make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all people: all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it." (Zechariah 12:1-3 King James Version)

The epiphany is there in the way the burden, i.e. the suffering of the people, is the burden of the word of God, hence of salvation and this burden is a burden stone cast in Jerusalem, and this reminds us of the Daniel song at the end of Just Above My Head and the stone Daniel hews out of the mountain and that rolls into Babylon, this stone being Jesus himself. Jesus is the son of God because he carries the burden of the Word of God, the revelation, the creative power of the Lord that enables all burdens to be accepted because they are the fate God himself entrusted man with, till Doomsday when everyone will be judged according to the way they carried heir burdens, they carried out the burden of the Word of God.

This last religious metaphor is more or less calling for submission and transcendence in that very submission to everlasting suffering and eternal pain. This is the deepest and saddest blues I can imagine

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
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Sonny's Blues (Penguin 60s)
Sonny's Blues (Penguin 60s) by James Baldwin (Paperback - 6 July 1995)
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