Monday, December 24, 2012

James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues"

I picked up my copy of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories again this afternoon and, after flipping through it for a minute or two, settled on the 31-page short story "Sonny's Blues."  James Baldwin wrote this one...and, I'm strictly guessing here...sometime in the late fifties, and it is a beautifully written experience for the reader.

Frankly, it caught me a bit by surprise.  I was initially unimpressed with what seemed to be a straightforward account by a Harlem man of his younger brother's arrest and imprisonment for using and selling heroin.  It is the classic story of two brothers, one who works hard to make something of himself, the other who succumbs to the temptations of the neighborhood streets.  Nothing new, there.

James Baldwin
But very subtly, the story shifts to one about a man's addiction to music and his sadness that his brother will never understand how much music means to him and to those that share his addiction.  Sonny knows that his older brother will never understand their relationship, or him, unless he finally hears music the way Sonny feels it as he plays it.

The moving part of this story has nothing to do with the musician's struggle to stay clean or with the older brother's attempts to help him through that pain.  (In fact, the saddest thing about "Sonny's Blues" is that, despite the troubled Harlem neighborhood Baldwin describes, the story reads more like a description of the last days of a golden age for black families...a far more innocent time.)  No, the moving (and most beautiful) part of the story is Baldwin's description of Sonny's performance in a jazz club, during which the story's narrator finally understands his brother, through having truly felt the music for the first time in his life.

Every musician should read this one because the last two pages of it are very special - James Baldwin got it, and he expresses it here as only a great writer could have done.  Powerful stuff.

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