"Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin Critical Analysis - …

So, what exactly is Baldwin doing with jazz in the story? What does it mean to create a tune-structure? And, just what is jazz anyway? How can one begin to examine the ways in which music can be read in the text? To start with, the definition of jazz is far-reaching and difficult to relegate to one static list of compositional attributes. Jazz “was born from old blues music, ragtime and gospel,” and through these influences jazz retains and encompasses all these musical forms (Porter, 13). Historically jazz tunes (from ragtime to swing) have had the following in common: syncopation, polyrhythms/polyphony, and harmonic progression. These early jazz styles (mostly ragtime pieces) were usually composed of four distinct themes that is, four distinct segments or arrangements. “These themes were typically sixteen bars, each theme divided into periods of four four-bar phrases and arranged in patterns of repeats and reprises” (Porter, 42). Later swing styles of jazz established a rhythmic groove, aligning rhythmic patterns (of various instruments) to create music with a forceful drive. While there were elements of improvisation, these standard (or song form) compositions used written arrangements with (to use a jazz phrase) cornered sound. That is, there was an element of predictability in the returning themes, time signatures, and repeated melodies (Porter, 159).

“Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin - …
Photo provided by Flickr

Your paper should argue a position on a topic of literary merit. The paper should be double-spaced. It should be no less than five and no more than seven typewritten pages. It should include at least five sources – two books minimum — and should be prepared using the MLA format.
this was the example the teacher gave – At the conclusion of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” we are led to believe that Sonny has succeeded with his lifetime goal to kick his heroin addiction and become a well-known jazz musician, but would reality really imply this?

Read “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues
Photo provided by Flickr

Literary critics have made much of Baldwin ending the story with Sonny performing a blues song. A blues song made popular by Ethel Waters, a singer of Armstrong’s era, who is noted to have gained fame by playing to white audiences and performing in a Vaudeville troop called White Time. Waters was known for having a “light voice” in contrast to other female blues vocal stylists. What Sonny does in that final performance is to take that song, a song that came out of blues tradition, a song that was sung in so many ways, by so many different people, and perform it in a new way – as a jazz piece.

Isolation and Redemption in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

Audio lecture with slides, plus discussion questions and suggestions for writing on "Sonny's Blues," from the academic publisher (scroll down to "Baldwin").

James Baldwin Writing Styles in Sonny's Blues

Baldwin also brings in the musical tradition of gospel and spiritual – these forms being influential to blues and jazz. The first time we “hear” music being performed in the story in on the streets of Harlem. Sonny and the narrator witness an outpouring of song from a group of revival singers performing on the street. This is a very heavy moment in the story. It brings forward that tradition of gospel, and of a shared history, and of hope and longing for salvation and freedom that has not yet come.