‘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