(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Sonny's Blues" James Baldwin

The following entry presents criticism on Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues" (1957). See also James Baldwin Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 15, 17, 127.

The short story "Sonny's Blues" is Baldwin's most highly acclaimed treatment of his signature themes: the nature of identity, race relations in the United States, human suffering, and the function of art. Set in the early 1950s in New York City, the story is narrated by an unnamed man who relates his attempts to come to terms with his long estranged brother, Sonny, a jazz musician. John M. Reilly, noting that an "outstanding quality of the Black literary tradition in America is its attention to the interdependence of personal and social experience," has concluded that "Sonny's Blues" both depicts and manifests the belief that the "artful expression of personal yet typical experience is one way to freedom."

Plot and Major Characters

After reading in a newspaper of Sonny's arrest for the possession and sale of heroin, the narrator—a high school algebra teacher aspiring to middle-class values, tastes, and security—recoils from the idea of getting involved in his brother's life. As he ponders the meaning of Sonny's situation and of his own fraternal obligations, the narrator recalls scenes and impressions from his childhood. He remembers in particular the story his mother told him about the murder of his uncle, a blues musician, the effect this had on his father, and his mother's subsequent entreaty to the narrator to always look after Sonny. After his relatively brief time in jail, Sonny comes to live with the narrator and his wife. The awkward, tentative conversations that ensue result in Sonny inviting his brother to hear him play at a Greenwich Village bar. Accepting the offer as an attempt at reconciliation, the narrator experiences—through the nuances of the music and the subtle interplay of the musicians—a sublime understanding of his brother and of the importance of music as a release from existential suffering.

Major Themes

Like much of Baldwin's writing, fiction as well as nonfiction, "Sonny's Blues" addresses specific racial issues and themes regarding the human condition. Displaying the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, whose works were largely responsible for articulating the philosophy of Existentialism, Baldwin depicts a world in which suffering characterizes man's basic state. The story's principal characters, however, not only struggle through an absurd world devoid of inherent meaning, but must also persevere in a society that tolerates racism. Baldwin thus sees black Americans suffering doubly: from the existential angst of the human condition, and from the humiliation, poverty, and violence imposed on them by a prejudiced society. In "Sonny's Blues" Baldwin addresses these issues by employing metaphors of darkness and anxiety, incorporating images of confinement, and offering portraits of life in contemporary Harlem and, through the narrator's recollection of his childhood and family, the American South. Another of the story's major themes concerns music, specifically jazz and blues. Baldwin uses these forms, which are African American in origin, for various purposes. Music is associated with particular eras and places-blues with the South's past and jazz, specifically bebop, with the modern urban setting. Also, Baldwin characterizes the narrator, in part, by his lack of musical knowledge; critics note that the emotional distance between the brothers is symbolized by the narrator's unfamiliarity with bebop and his ignorance of the great saxophone player Charlie "Bird" Parker. Moreover, commentators note that the narrator's epiphanic experience at the end of the story, when he hears Sonny's playing, instantiates the theme of the redemptive powers of music and signals the rebirth of the brothers' relationship.

Critical Reception

"Sonny's Blues" is generally considered one of Baldwin's finest works. Many commentators have discussed the story in relation to the author's role as a civil-rights leader. John M. Reilly has noted that "Sonny's Blues" "states dramatically the motive for Baldwin's famous polemics in the cause of Black freedom." A minority of critics have commented negatively that the social and political messages in "Sonny's Blues" are presented in a heavy-handed manner. Joseph Featherstone, for example, remarked that at various points in the story one hears "not the voice of Sonny or his brother, [but] the intrusive voice of Baldwin the boy preacher." Most critics, however, agree with John Rees Moore, who stated that "Sonny's Blues" is "unequivocally successful."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Autobiographical Notes (autobiography) 1953
Go Tell It on the Mountain (novel) 1953
The Amen Corner (drama) 1955
Notes of a Native Son (essays) 1955
Giovanni's Room (novel) 1956
Giovanni's Room (drama) 1957
"Sonny's Blues" (short story) 1957; published in the journal Partisan Review
Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (essays) 1961
Another Country (novel) 1962
The Fire Next Time (essays) 1963
Blues for Mister Charlie (drama) 1964
Going to Meet the Man (short stories) 1965
This Morning, This Evening, So Soon (novella) 1967
Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (novel) 1968
A Rap on Race [with Margaret Mead] (conversations) 1971
No Name in the Street (essays) 1972
One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario Based on "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" [adaptor; from The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley] (drama) 1972
A Dialogue [with Nikki Giovanni] (dialogue) 1973
A Deed from the King of Spain (drama) 1974
If Beale Street Could Talk (novel) 1974
The Devil Finds Work (essays) 1976
Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood [with Yoran Cazac] (juvenilia) 1976
Just above My Head (novel) 1979
Jimmy's Blues: Selected Poems (poetry) 1983
The Evidence of Things Not Seen (nonfiction) 1985
The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985 (nonfiction) 1985
Harlem Quartet (novel) 1987

∗This is an adaptation of the novel.

†This collection includes "Sonny's Blues."

Elaine R. Ognibene (essay date January 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Black Literature Revisited: 'Sonny's Blues'," in English Journal, Vol. 60, No. 1, January, 1971, pp. 36-7.

[In the essay below, Ognibene examines the main themes in "Sonny's Blues."]

Barbara Dodds Stanford (English Journal, March 1969) calls black literature "a godsend to the teacher who wants his class to deal with genuine communication problems…." Citing among others, two Baldwin classics: Notes of a Native Son and Go Tell It on the Mountain, she mentions that in such works "it is a relief to recognize our own struggle to find ourselves," and she further intimates that students can relate to "young people struggling to assert their own independence and identity…." A work which she fails to list, a story which is often lost among Baldwin's writings, is "Sonny's Blues." This work is particularly relevant, not only because it concerns itself with problems facing many in this era of disintegrating family bonds and uncertain norms, but also because it affords an opportunity to elicit the type of "affective" response which Mrs. Stanford justly considers important. In it Baldwin deals with the question of prejudice and stereotypes; with an attempt to bridge a modern cliché—the generation gap; with an ascent from drugs to something more real and more lasting; and with a search for self-identity that is every man's. [Presented with] such pertinent content, one needs to take a more careful look.

Close perusal of "Sonny's Blues" reveals that while it is ostensibly about Sonny—his descent to the underworld through drugs and his resurrection through jazz—Baldwin's deeper concern is with the narrator, the respectable schoolteacher, the "white" Negro, Sonny's big brother. The author shows that the nameless "I" of his story, though older, is not wiser, and he uses both Sonny and his music as tools to help the narrator reconcile himself to his racial heritage.

Reading the newspaper account about his brother, the narrator says that he is "scared" for Sonny, but his next words belie his statement. "I couldn't believe it…. I couldn't find any room for it anywhere inside me." It is not Sonny but he himself he fears for, for, if he reestablishes contact with Sonny, he is faced with a condition of dissonance: his carefully ordered middle class existence cannot acknowledge a drug addict brother, yet somehow he feels vaguely "responsible." Baldwin mentions that this deliberation was carrying the narrator "someplace he didn't want to go," and he intimates that the "someplace" is a past which Sonny's brother has rejected and tried to escape by leaving Harlem and accepting the bourgeois...

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Sherley Anne Williams (essay date 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Black Musician: The Black Hero as Light Bearer," in Give Birth to Brightness, Dial Press, 1972, pp. 135-66.

[Williams is an American novelist, poet, critic, and author of children's books whose most highly acclaimed work is the novel Dessa Rose (1986). In the following excerpt, a portion of which appeared in CLC-3, she examines the significance of music and the musician in "Sonny's Blues."]

The musician in the works of James Baldwin is more than a metaphor; he is the embodiment of alienation and estrangement, which the figure of the artist becomes in much of twentieth century literature. Most of his characters have at the center of their...

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Suzy Bernstein Goldman (essay date Fall 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues': A Message in Music," in Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall, 1974, pp. 231-33.

[In the following essay, Goldman discusses the main themes in "Sonny's Blues."]

In "Sonny's Blues" theme, form, and image blend into perfect harmony and rise to a thundering crescendo. The story, written in 1957 but carrying a vital social message for us today, tells of two black brothers' struggle to understand one another. The older brother, a straight-laced Harlem algebra teacher, is the unnamed narrator who represents, in his anonymity, everyman's brother; the younger man is Sonny, a jazz pianist who, when the story opens, has...

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Sigmund Ro (essay date 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Black Musician as Literary Hero: Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues' and Kelley's 'Cry for Me'," in American Studies in Scandinavia, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1975, pp. 17-48.

[In the following excerpt, Ro discusses the intellectual and philosophical influences on Baldwin at the time he wrote "Sonny's Blues," examining in particular the ways in which the story reflects the existential philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Ro also situates this and other examples of Baldwin's work in the larger context of African-American literature in the pre- and post-Civil Rights eras, suggesting that Baldwin's strategy for writing about the human condition by emphasizing, or universalizing, his...

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Donald C. Murray (essay date Fall 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues': Complicated and Simple," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 4, Fall, 1977, pp. 353-57.

[In the following essay, portions of which appeared in CLC-13, Murray explores themes of identity, loss, and transcendence in "Sonny's Blues," linking them with the story's key metaphors of light, dark, and water.]

One boy was whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through all that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds.


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Louis H. Pratt (essay date 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Fear and the Fury," in James Baldwin, Twayne Publishers, 1978, pp. 31-49.

[In the following excerpt, Pratt discusses the ways in which Sonny is portrayed as the older and wiser of the brothers in "Sonny's Blues."]

The life of the black man in America today is replete with crucial crises on a day-to-day basis. His very existence is threatened by the inner conflict between the satisfaction of his basic needs and the nameless, paralyzing, and insurmountable fears—conscious and unconscious—which grow out of the experience of being black in a white-oriented society. These fears result in the imploding of the personality and render him incapable of coping...

(The entire section is 965 words.)

Edward Lobb (essay date Summer 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "James Baldwin's Blues and the Function of Art," in The International Fiction Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 143-51.

[In the following essay, Lobb discusses Baldwin's characterization of the nature and purpose of art in "Sonny's Blues," arguing that he juxtaposes key images and metaphors at a symbolic level distinct from that of the narrated events.]

James Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues," first published in 1957, has been anthologized several times since its inclusion in Baldwin's Going to Meet the Man (1965). It is a fine and immediately appealing story, but it has never received critical treatment adequate to its complexity. The best...

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Keith E. Byerman (essay date Fall 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in 'Sonny's Blues'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 4, Fall, 1982, pp. 367-72.

[In the following essay, Byerman analyzes the narrator's discourse in "Sonny's Blues," arguing that his use of language necessarily contains and blunts the impact of his experiences. Byerman further states that Baldwin's body of work stands in ironic contradiction to the notion that language is insufficient to convey reality.]

"Sonny's Blues" has generally been accorded status as the best of James Baldwin's short stories. It tells of the developing relationship between Sonny, a musician and drug addict, and the narrator, his brother,...

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Richard N. Albert (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues'," in College Literature, Vol. XI, No. 2, 1984, pp. 178-85.

[In the following essay, Albert discusses the meaning of Baldwin's references to blues and jazz in "Sonny's Blues," suggesting that what appear on first inspection to be inconsistencies that betray Baldwin's incomplete knowledge of the music, may in fact be deliberate "contraries" designed to enhance the inclusive, humanistic closing theme.]

James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," a popular selection among editors of anthologies used in introductory college literature courses, is one of his most enduring stories because it is less polemical than many of...

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Michael C. Clark (essay date December 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues': Childhood, Light, and Art," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, December, 1985, pp. 197-205.

[In the following essay, Clark examines the ways in which Baldwin uses images of light and darkness in "Sonny's Blues."]

"Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin is a sensitive story about the reconciliation of two brothers, but it is much more than that. It is, in addition, an examination of the importance of the black heritage and of the central importance of music in that heritage. Finally, the story probes the central role that art must play in human existence. To examine all of these facets of human existence is a rather formidable...

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Ronald Bieganowski (essay date September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "James Baldwin's Vision of Otherness in 'Sonny's Blues' and Giovanni's Room," in CLA Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1, September, 1988, pp. 69-80.

[In the following excerpt, Bieganowski discusses the ways in which the characters in "Sonny's Blues" acquire self-knowledge and the implications such knowledge has for their relationships with others.]

For several decades now, James Baldwin has maintained his position of importance among black writers through his novels, stories, essays, and interviews, generating continued scholarly interest. In her recent book on Baldwin [James Baldwin, 1980], Carolyn Sylvander points to the "nuclear ideas and beliefs" around...

(The entire section is 2434 words.)

Pancho Savery (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Baldwin, Bebop, and 'Sonny's Blues'," in Understanding Others: Cultural and Cross-Cultural Studies and the Teaching of Literature, edited by Joesph Trimmer and Tilly Warnock, National Council of Teachers of English, 1992, pp. 165-76.

[Savery is an American critic and educator who has written extensively on African-American literature. In the following except, he discusses the historical and musical contexts relevant to "Sonny's Blues," noting in particular the social, political, and aesthetic significance of the form of jazz known as Bebop.]

Although there have been interesting analyses of "Sonny's Blues," none of them has gotten to the specificities of the...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Jones, Harry L. "Style, Form, and Content in the Short Fiction of James Baldwin." In James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Therman B. O'Daniel, pp. 143-50. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1977.

Considers "Sonny's Blues" to be "the most perfectly realized story" in Going to Meet the Man.

Levensohn, Alan. "The Artist Must Outwit the Celebrity." The Christian Science Monitor 57, No. 301 (18 November 1965): 15.

Positive assessment of Going to Meet the Man, with particular emphasis on "Sonny's Blues."


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