The Theme of Music and its Effects and Relation to People in James Baldwins Sonnys Blues and August Wilsons the Piano Lesson

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Songs play a significant role in many people’s lives, especially those that do not have aspects like the capacity for true freedom, the expression of identity, the ability to be one’s true self, and to exercise self-love, and unity within each family. Families like these are often suppressed by society and, ironically, control is often found within African American families. It is agreed that throughout our history of the United States of America, African Americans were not granted the same rights and were discriminated against due to their skin complexion.

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Because of the struggles of discrimination, many families and individuals turned to music. This, in turn, strengthened their resolve and hope. Their perseverance in the face of adversity and their longing for opportunities and better outcomes are reflected through the music they play and the significance of these songs. Outstanding examples of this can be seen in the play “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson and the short story “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, set between the 1930s to the 1950s. Both works depict an underlying theme of music and its effects on people.

Beginning with the short story “Sonny’s Blues,” a pivotal aspect of Sonny’s life was music. Growing up, he was a misunderstood child and vastly different from his pragmatic, law-abiding brother. As a result, he strayed from the path of music and into drug use, which was unapproved of by his brother and parents due to their family’s past experiences. Yet, music was the only way Sonny could express himself, create a sense of comfort and solace, and feel accepted for who he was, regardless of their perceptions about him. Even though his brother, our narrator, labels these people as drug addicts and feels apprehensive about their intentions, he acknowledges that they are more than their poor decisions, especially with regard to Sonny. This group of people accepts Sonny and listens to him express his raw emotions as he performs jazz and blues on stage.

For years, Sonny’s brother didn’t fully comprehend who Sonny was until he saw him perform and interact with his musician friends. The narrator describes this experience as follows:

“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 be free if we would listen; that he would never be utterly free until he did. But there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he was laid to rest in earth,” (Baldwin 44-47).

This passage reveals that although Sonny might have fewer possibilities and less security in the life he chose, the songs he plays enable a sense of liberty and expression that he cannot ordinarily participate in. For once, Sonny’s brother listened to his story before judging it. Sonny’s expression of himself through music, disregarding the negative reaction of being a “drug-induced” musician and outside pressures of racial prejudice, demonstrates his determination and how he chose to deal differently with his conflicts than his brother.

Siblings, Berniece and Boy Willie, from the play, “The Piano Lesson,” also have their perspectives on music. Even though they disagree about the value of the historically rich piano that has their family’s history carved into it, the significance of music within their family is unquestionably crucial. Music plays an essential part in this family’s life; most of the time, they are not conscious of it. It connects them, allows them to express themselves and their feelings, and is used as a release to alleviate stress. There are numerous examples of this throughout the play. For instance, after the men of the play start to lightly argue about Sutter’s land, Boy Willie begins to sing, “O Lord Berta O Lord girl oh-ah/O Lord 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 knows this one. [As DOAKER joins in the men stamp and clap to keep time.”

They sing in harmony with great enthusiasm and flair.]” (Wilson 20).

This excerpt illustrates an instance in which music helps connect the family. As they begin to disagree, they change the mood by Boy Willie singing and everyone else chiming in. This depicts the unity and connectedness of this family, which contributes to a feeling of hope and determination among the members. It also illustrates how they defuse conflict and tension. As things get tense, people may find comfort in “singing the stress away.”

Music helps people deal with problems or situations they would otherwise not be able to handle. As times were tough, especially for African Americans, they turned to music to express their voice that wasn’t being heard. However, music has the potential of doing so much more. It not only allows for emotional freedom but it also helps build unity and even defuse conflict. The music introduced to the readers of these two works has a much broader significance than explicitly stated.

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The Theme of Music and Its Effects and Relation to People in James Baldwins Sonnys Blues and August Wilsons The Piano Lesson. (2022, Dec 16). Retrieved from