As Takach suggests, we should not be surprised to find that Baldwin calls upon biblical stories as the basis for his own writing, bearing in mind his religious upbringing and his intimate knowledge of the Bible; indeed he once announced “I was born in the church” (p.109). Takach claims that James Campbell, author of Baldwin’s biography, stated that Baldwin’s knowledge of the Bible was so extensive that “he coloured his phrases with Old Testament rhetoric and poetry, with full conviction” and that he had grown up listening to church sermons in Harlem and reading his King James Bible whilst living in permanent fear of his stepfather David Baldwin. The latter was described by Campbell as a “self-ordained minister” who was “religiously puritanical” (p.109).
Takach further relates that Baldwin junior began preaching as a junior Minister from the age of 14, but by the age of 17 became disillusioned and left the church, turning to Dostoyevsky’s novels instead, but as Canpbell stated, “although he [Baldwin] left the church, the church never left him” (p.110).
Takach reiterates that biblical and religious themes are indeed central to Baldwin’s best writing, including this short story. Further, he expresses puzzlement that taking into account all of Baldwin’s associations and experiences with his church, critics have not previously made these biblical associations with his work and with this short story in particular. Also, as Takach reminds us, there exists a long tradition of writers of African American origins who have woven themes and references of a biblical nature into their works. He concedes that this omission on the part of the critics could be because Baldwin is most widely cast as a writer involved in civil rights issues rather than writing on Christian topics. It could also be because – Takach surmises – that in his later works and in interviews he gave, Baldwin “often attempted to distance himself from his childhood religious zeal” and even criticized what he viewed as the “religious fanaticism” of his stepfather David Baldwin. However, Takach believes – with some justification – that as a consequence, the critics have not fully examined the “religious dimensions” of Baldwin’s writings, including “Sonny’s Blues.” He points out that even though the young Baldwin walked away from his church, there were Christian elements integral to his works throughout his writing career, and cites a number of examples. In particular, the content and the biblical rhetoric in “The Fire Next Time” tell us that Baldwin’s affinity with the church was still very much there. Note that “Sonny’s Blues” was published six years earlier (p.111-112).
Takach goes on (p.112) to discuss details of “Sonny’s Blues” affirming that it should be seen as effectively “a contemporary retelling of the parable of the Prodigal Son” in that, like the Biblical tale, it features two brothers: the older brother who kept “on the straight and narrow” and his younger brother who lived riotously. The older brother – the narrator – had survived Harlem's dangerous streets to become an upright citizen and family man, a math teacher in a high school in Harlem, recounting the story of Sonny, the younger brother, who is a jazz / blues musician addicted to heroin. The story opens with the narrator reading a newspaper account of Sonny's arrest for selling and possessing drugs. For some time he had had no contact with Sonny, because he disapproved of Sonny’s existence, stating that “I didn't like the way he carried himself, loose and dreamlike all the time,” and “I didn't like his friends, and his music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led. It just sounded weird and disordered” (p.112).
So, states Takach, Sonny is effectively “lost”, paralleling the situation of the younger brother in the Prodigal Son story, and – like the older brother in that story – Sonny’s older brother seems unsympathetic towards Sonny’s predicament and expresses no concern for him. However, as Takach relates, while Sonny pays his debts to society in prison, the narrator thinks about the obligations he has towards him, based on the promises he had made when their mother died (p.112). He doesn’t visit Sonny, nor does he contact him there, but then when his own young daughter dies he is prompted to write to Sonny and subsequently to invite him into his home when Sonny is eventually released from his term in prison. Again emphasizing the obvious parallels between “Sonny’s Blues” and the Prodigal Son story, Takach draws our attention to both accounts being about “sin and redemption” (p.113), reminding his readers that although Sonny’s brother had for a while forgotten his promise to their mother to look after Sonny when she had said to him: “You got to hold on to your brother, 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” (p.113).
According to Takach, that conversation Baldwin’s narrator had with their mother made him “a contemporary Cain.” He is referring to the account in Genesis in which Cain murders his brother Abel, but then when Cain is asked about Abel’s whereabouts by God asks God “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In “Sonny’s Blues” Takach suggests that the older brother feels he should fulfil that role for Sonny but has failed in his duty. As Takach notes, the fact that the brother only heard about Sonny’s arrest by reading the newspaper shows clearly that he had not kept the promise he had made to their dying mother (p.114). Further, the Baldwin story uses the expression “the cup of trembling” (p.117), which comes directly from the book of Isaiah, showing that Baldwin has biblical texts very much in mind in his writing, as Takach claims.
In his concluding remarks, Takach points out that most critical discussion of “Sonny’s Blues” has focused on aspects such as the identity issues experienced by the narrator and Baldwin’s references to music, but that understanding and appreciating the biblical aspects gives a better insight into Baldwin’s literary work.
Douglass (2010) sees the story “Sonny’s Blues” from a similar perspective to Takach. Her review of this literary work opens with:
James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is often explored as a tale of family or an exploration of blues during the Harlem Renaissance, but it is rarely depicted as a work that contains Biblical themes. The most apparent reference to the Bible occurs at the very end of the story. However, there is another clear story that is echoed in this work: the story of Cain and Abel.
She also makes direct reference to the “cup of trembling” as did Takach, also commenting that it was a direct reference to the book of Isaiah, claiming that it “symbolizes Sonny’s redemption from sin.”
In contrast to the Takach view and interpretation (echoed by Douglass) of this important short story by Baldwin, Zimmerman (2011) sees the story in a different light entirely. He focuses almost entirely on the story as being an important piece of jazz literature, contributing to “jazz history” and used to provide the framework for the story about the struggle of these two brothers to “live in a world of hatred and oppression.” He has either completely failed to see the obvious biblical parallels noted by Takach, or has chosen to ignore them in his review, which perhaps is unsurprising as Zimmerman himself is into jazz as a trumpet player.
Another review perhaps somewhat differing to that by Zimmerman, Renee’s (2009) review of “Sonny’s Blues” describes it as “a powerful short story” and “so full of the wrenching emotions that African American men can experience, inward emotions that take the place of actual words spoken to loved ones who need to hear them.” Full of praise for the writer and his work, Renee states that Baldwin exquisitely expresses those words and thoughts “between these two brothers who fiercely love each other.” She also refers to Sonny’s heroin addiction and to “his own demons – those self imposed and those developed by his surroundings.” Perhaps significantly, suggesting she has perceived the biblical analogies within the story, Renee concludes that “This blues story is full of power and wonder and fight and God Himself.”
For this researcher the case for “Sonny’s Blues” being based heavily on parallel stories from the Bible such as “The Prodigal Son” and Cain and Abel” is proven beyond reasonable doubt, drawing on the opinions of others like Takach and Douglass who have studied and reviewed the work and seen those biblical links for themselves.
Baldwin, James.(1957-1985). “Sonny’s Blues.” Southwest Career and Technical Academy (SWCTA) “Going to Meet the Man” (p. 122-148). Web. Accessed 19 Dec. 2013.
Douglass, Jill. (May 2010). “Biblical Themes in “Sonny’s Blues.”” Suite 101. Web. Accessed 20 Dec. 2013.
Renee, Anna. (Dec. 2009). “James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues (Book Review). Wordpress. Web. Accessed 20 Dec. 2013.
Takach, James. (Dec. 2007). “The biblical foundation of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” Feinstein College of Arts & Sciences Faculty Papers. Paper 3, (p.109-118). Roger Williams University. Web. Accessed 19 Dec. 2013.
Zimmerman, Brian. (Sep. 2011). “Short Story Review – Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin.” thinking in jazz / Wordpress. Web. Accessed 19 Dec. 2013.