Music Theme in James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues and August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson
The Hope And Perseverance that Music Strengthens Within a Family
Music plays a significant role in many people’s lives, specifically ones that lack aspects like the capability of true freedom, expression of identity, comfort to be one’s true self and exert self love, and unity within each family. Families like these are oppressed by society and tend to be unfortunately, dominate among African American families. It is agreed that throughout our history of the United States of America, African Americans were not allowed the same rights and were scrutinized for their skin complexion in many ways. Due to the hardships of being discriminated against, many families and individuals turned to music, which, in return, strengthened their perseverance and hope. Their determination regardless of the obstacles, and their desire for opportunities and certain outcomes is shown through the music they play and the significance of these songs. Great examples of this shown through a play and short work which are placed in the time period of the 1930s to 1950s. These examples include the play, “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson and the short story, “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. Both works show an underlying theme of music and its relation to people and how it affects them.
Beginning with the short story, “Sonny’s Blues”, an important aspect of Sonny’s life was music. Growing up, he was a misunderstood kid and was very different from his logical, rule abiding brother. Due to this, he went astray and started to run along the path of music and drug use that his brother, and parents did not really accept due to their family’s past experiences. However, music was the only way Sonny was able to express himself, build a sense of comfort and relief within himself, and be kind of accepted as the person he is regardless of the actuality of their true character. Although his brother, our narrator, describes these people as drug addicts and don’t find himself feeling positive about the audience’s intentions, he sees that these people are most than their bad decisions, especially to Sonny. This group of people accepts Sonny and listens to him express his true feelings as he is on stage playing not only jazz but, blues. Throughout years of misunderstanding and avoidance, Sonny’s brother didn’t start to understand the person his brother was until he watched him perform and interact with his musician friends. The narrator describes this situation stating,
“Here, I was in Sonny’s world. Or rather: his kingdom… 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 he did. Yet there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth,” (Baldwin 44-47).
This passage shows although Sonny realistically may have less opportunities and stability in the life he chose, however, the music he plays enables a sense of freedom and expression that he cannot usually partake in. For once, Sonny’s brother listened to his story before judging it. Sonny’s expression of himself through music, disregarding the negative backlash of being a “drug induced” musician and outside pressures of racial prejudice, shows his perseverance and how he decided to handle his conflicts differently than his brother.
Siblings, Berniece and Boy Willie, from the play, “The Piano Lesson,” also have their own beliefs on music. Although they may dispute about the significance of the historically valuable piano that has their family’s history carved into it, the significance of music within their family is without a doubt important. Music plays a crucial part in this family’s life although, most of them time they are not conscious to it. It connects them, it allows them to express themselves and their emotions, and it is used as a release and to relieve tension. There are many examples of this throughout the play. For example, after the men of the play start to lightly dispute about Sutter’s land, Boy Willie started to sing,
“O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal oh-ah/O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal well [LYMON and WINING BOY join in.] Go ’head marry don’t you wait on me oh-ah …BOY WILLIE: Come on, Doaker. Doaker know this one. [As DOAKER joins in the men stamp and clap to keep time. They sing in harmony with great fervor and style.]” (Wilson 20).
This excerpt shows one example in which music helps connect the family. As they are starting to disagree, they change the mood by Boy Willie singing and everyone else chimes in. This shows the unity and connectedness of this family which is one aspect that builds a feeling of hope and perseverance among the individuals. This also shows how they relieve conflict and tension. As things get tense, individuals may find comfort in “singing the stress away.”
Music helps people cope with issues or situations one otherwise wouldn’t have the ability to do. As times were tough, specifically for African Americans, they turned to music to express their voice that wasn’t being heard. However, music has the capability of doing so much more. Not only does it allow freedom of expression but it helps build unity and even relieve conflict. The music introduced to the readers of those two works, both had a truly bigger importance than explicitly stated.
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