‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin

‘Sonny’s Blues’ reminds me of the capacity of short fiction to feel just as expansive as a novel. It tells the story of two estranged brothers, whose paths diverge after the death of their parents. While the narrator settles into family life in Harlem as a schoolteacher, the younger brother Sonny seeks a bohemian existence as a jazz musician in the Village until he is arrested for using and selling heroin. When Sonny is released from prison, they reconnect, but it’s only when the narrator agrees to watch Sonny perform that he sees his brother for who he really is for the first time. To me, the final scene of this story is one of the most moving testaments of the power of music—and art more broadly—to express what feels inexpressible, bridge seemingly impossible gulfs in understanding, and provide both an outlet and solace for our suffering.

First published in the Partisan Review, 1957, and widely collected, including in Going to Meet The Man, Dial Press, 1965, which was published as a Penguin Modern Classic in 1991. The story was also published as a Penguin 60 in 1995

‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin

I love Baldwin’s novels and don’t really think of him as a story writer. Indeed this long story, to my mind, serves the point: he is better in the longer form. But I like what he does in this story and was keen to represent his work in any selection of writing. Here as elsewhere he creates a community, and reveals its pains and sadnesses, its hopes, passions and ambitions. I love that Baldwin is unafraid to reveal such heights and depths. So much is unpacked in the story and though it might begin to feel unwieldy in the weight it bears in conveying too much familial and personal history of Sonny and his addiction, by flashbacks Baldwin manages to steer on the story, with the triumph of a musical skill coming to the fore. There is such a density of character and place with Baldwin, he can be endlessly re-read.

First published in The Partisan Review, 1957. Collected in Going to Meet The Man, Dial Press, 1965, which was published as a Penguin Modern Classic in 1991. The story was also published as a Penguin 60 in 1995

‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin

While short stories can, of course, draw on anything the writer likes, there are certain subjects that writers seem to cluster around. And ever since F Scott Fitzgerald’s epoch-naming collection of 1922, The Jazz Age, the short story has enjoyed an especially intimate relationship with jazz.

‘Sonny’s Blues’ follows a rough script set down by Langston Hughes more than twenty years earlier in ‘The Blues I’m Playing’: an unconventional, but talented young jazz musician repairs a broken relationship through a moment of transformative performance (buried under this is an even older script, the script for the short story: an individual experiences something transformative that changes their relationship with those around them). But Baldwin does so much more than this simple template suggests. The story is a rich exploration of communication, storytelling, and the way communities are made and unmade. It is the jazz story and Baldwin at their keenest.

Collected in Going to Meet the Man, Dial, 1965, and available online here

‘Going to Meet the Man’ by James Baldwin

Baldwin wrote ably in just about every form available to the writer. To my taste, the stories in Going to Meet the Man represent his greatest accomplishment as a fiction writer. The more famous story (rightly) in the collection is ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ which is a long lament by an upright schoolteacher, or a kind of history of his long love for his heroin-addicted jazzman brother.

‘Going to Meet the Man’ is a riskier story. I think of it as being in conversation with Eudora Welty’s ‘Where Is the Voice Coming From?,’ which appeared just a little earlier, and might well have been written around the same time. Both stories do a thing that was unfashionable then, and which is even more unfashionable now, which is to inhabit the point of view of the person who is monstrously wrong. In Baldwin’s case, the protagonist is a small-town Southern sheriff fresh from another day of violence in the ongoing work of suppressing the forward motion of the Civil Rights movement. It is a tale of sexual repression, racial violence, and scary marital power dynamics. Baldwin is unflinching and unsentimental, and the story, which leaves the reader icy cold, gets there in the most scorching manner possible.

from Going to Meet the Man, Dial Press, 1965/Penguin Modern Classics, 1991