James Baldwin 's "Sonny's Blues" is the story of a young jazz musician (Sonny) from Harlem, NY who gets addicted to heroin, is arrested for using and selling drugs, and returns to his childhood neighborhood after his release from prison. He moves in with his older brother (the story's narrator) and his brother's family. The two brothers sort of reconnect after a very tense few weeks during which both try to deal with their anger towards each other. Drugs are a central part of the story, but it's also about family, music, and trying to overcome life's struggles.
Harlem was Baldwin's hometown, and he was born there in 1924. In his teens, he worked as a Pentecostal preacher, under the influence of his father. Yet as he grew older, he moved away from the influence of the church. He found himself an apartment in the artist's district of Greenwich Village, NY and then, in 1948, in part due to the alienation he felt as a gay black man in the US, he moved to Paris.
Baldwin's literary reputation bloomed with his semi-autobiographical first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953. He's most famous for his works that deal with the experience of being a black man in America before the Civil Rights Movement.
When "Sonny's Blues" was published in 1957, Baldwin was already known on the literary scene. The story appeared in Partisan Review, one of America's most well-respected journals at the time. Baldwin published it again in 1965 in his collection of short stories entitled Going to Meet the Man. The story on its own garnered a plenty of positive critical attention, but critics had very different ideas about what the story was really about. Baldwin had developed a reputation for writing about African-American causes, so was the story about race? Some thought so. Or was it about music? Or the perils of drug use? Or humanity in general? Readers saw all of this in the story. But whatever theme critics focused on, most agreed that "Sonny's Blues" was a pretty darn remarkable piece of literature.
"Sonny's Blues" is kind of a tough story to read for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it focuses so much on human suffering. This is probably something we can all relate to on some level. When Sonny is in high school he turns to drugs because he feels trapped in Harlem, trapped in school, and trapped by what he's supposed to do versus what he wants to do. He's trying to find his way in the world, not quite an adult but definitely not a kid anymore.
This is a position many of us find ourselves in when we're in high school. We still have to listen to our parents, teachers, coaches, etc., but we also have our own ideas and opinions, our own passions and views of the world. It can be so frustrating when we don't get to express those or feel that they're not taken seriously. This is exactly what happens with Sonny. His brother doesn't understand his desire to be a musician or why he'd want to join the military before finishing school. Sonny feels constrained on a bunch of levels, and we think this is a pretty common thing to face as young adults.
We also think this is one of the reasons you should care about this story. Most of us don't turn to drugs to escape these feelings (and we certainly don't advocate or justify Sonny's choice to do so), but many of us probably do struggle to figure out how to deal with them. "Sonny's Blues" is about a lot of things, but on some level the story boils down to this young guy trying to figure out what makes him happy, express his creativity, and be taken seriously by those around him. He's a guy who makes some really bad decisions when trying to deal with his own suffering. In that way, the story is about being young and misunderstood. (And you know that feeling, right?) But it's also a cautionary tale about how the decisions we make now (both good and bad) can affect us for a long, long time.
PBS "American Masters" Biography
Baldwin's life and writing are explored in this PBS website and documentary.
Ken Burns' "Jazz"
Burns is a documentary filmmaker who did an amazing series on the history of jazz. This website accompanies the PBS series.
A short film was made out of the story in 2001.
Paris Review Interview
Check out this fascinating interview with Baldwin in which he discusses his writing, his personal life, his ideas about race, and other authors.
Letter from Baldwin to his Nephew (also named James)
This is a really touching letter from Baldwin to his brother's son
"Am I Blue?"
These are the lyrics to the song Sonny plays in the club at the end of the story.
This is a great video of Louis Armstrong playing in London. (He's the musician Sonny doesn't like.)
A very cool video of Charlie Parker (the musician Sonny <em>does</em> like) during a recording session.
James Baldwin Interview
A fascinating interview with Baldwin in his 50s. (And check out the interviewer's awesome glasses!)
"Am I Blue?"
Listen to Billie Holiday singing "Am I Blue?" (Accompanied by an odd music video.)
We just really like this picture of Baldwin!