Tambourines to Glory

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Tambourines to Glory

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Media Adaptations
Topics For Further Study
Historical Context
Compare & Contrast
Critical Overview
What Do I Read Next?
Further Reading

Langston Hughes


Tambourines to Glory, published in 1958, is the second of Langston Hughes's two novels. (His first, Not without Laughter, was published in 1930, almost thirty years earlier.) It tells the story of two women, the religious Essie Belle Johnson and her conniving friend Laura Reed, who open a storefront church in Harlem. Essie sincerely wants to use her beautiful singing voice to bring people to God, and hopes to make enough money through the church to bring her daughter up from the South to live with her. But Laura wants only the money, which she uses for gambling, drinking, and attracting young men. The novel is rich with the spoken and sung voices of the African American community of Harlem, and derives its humor from the lively and generally appealing scoundrels who twist religion and morals for their own earthly gain.

Hughes had written a musical play version of Tambourines to Glory in 1956, and he changed the story only slightly to create the novel. Several of the novel's thirty-six brief chapters read like a play script. The novel as a whole is noticeably without extended descriptive passages, characters' unspoken thoughts, and other qualities that often distinguish prose fiction from drama.

Author Biography

James Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His unusual middle name had been the birth name of his mother, a teacher. His father was a lawyer and businessman. Hughes grew up mainly in Lawrence, Kansas, a lonely child drawn to reading and writing. His first poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," was published in the June 1921 issue of the magazine Crisis, edited by the sociologist and political leader W. E. B. DuBois. It became one of Hughes's best-known and most anthologized poems.

After a year at Columbia University in New York, Hughes took simple jobs, traveled around the world, and continued to publish poems. He returned to the United States in 1924, already recognized as one of the most talented young African American poets in the movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes thrived in the atmosphere of Harlem, soaking up jazz and blues music, leftist politics, and racial pride. Within the next six years he would graduate from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and publish two highly regarded collections of poems, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), and a novel, Not without Laughter (1930). Through the next twenty-five years Hughes published more poetry, some of it rather radical politically, as well as plays, short stories, essays, and a weekly newspaper column. His writing explored and celebrated the African American experience, often incorporating musical elements and themes.

Throughout this period, Hughes won writing contests and received fellowships and grants to help support his work. Although he was an important and respected writer, Hughes never enjoyed financial security until the late 1940s, when he wrote the lyrics for a successful musical theater production. For the first time, he was able to own his own home. He hoped to repeat that success in 1956 with a new play, Tambourines to Glory, which he rewrote and published as a novel in 1958. However, the novel did not sell well and the play lost money.

By the 1960s, with a new Civil Rights movement led by a new generation of men, African Americans regarded Hughes more highly as a historic figure than as a writer of significant new work, although he continued to publish. Hughes died of congestive heart failure on May 22, 1967, in New York City. His last poetry, about civil rights, was published after his death.

Plot Summary

Chapter 1

Tambourines to Glory is divided into thirty-six chapters, each a separate scene with its own title. The first, "Palm Sunday," is the longest at six pages, and it introduces the main characters, the setting, and the idea that triggers the plot. On a Palm Sunday in Harlem, two friends are reminiscing over their younger days when they attended church occasionally. Essie Belle Johnson and her neighbor Laura Reed both grew up in the American South, and came to New York City as young adults, specifically to the African American section called Harlem. Both are about forty, living in one-room kitchenette apartments in a run-down building, and barely getting by on welfare. Essie dreams of having enough money to bring her daughter Marietta up from Virginia to live; Laura thinks only of the next drink, the next bet on the numbers, and the next man. Playfully, they discuss opening a church and getting rich off the collection plate. As they sing a hymn they are uplifted for a moment, and Essie is moved to strengthen her relationship with God.

Chapters 2–5

The next morning, Essie tells Laura that she really intends to start a church. She believes that God will answer their prayers, and that he has already touched her life. Laura is willing, though she sees the church only as a way to get money. They agree that when the weather is warm they will buy a Bible and a tambourine and start praising on the street corner. Laura will preach, Essie will sing, and they will use the tambourine to keep time and to gather collections.

Chapters 6–8

With a tambourine from the Good Will Store, the Reed Sisters, as they call themselves, offer their first worship service at the corner of 126th Street and Lenox. The two dozen people who stop to hear them are moved enough to join in the singing, shout "Amen," and throw some change in the tambourine. On their first night of preaching, the Reed Sisters take in $11.93. Although they had agreed that the first night's collection would go toward purchasing a Bible, Laura takes out almost four dollars for liquor and a bet. Over the next several nights, Laura's habit is to preach, divide the money, and go look for a man or a drink, but Essie stays to talk with the people in the crowd. They think she can help them, and she wonders whether it is true.

Chapter 9

The church is a success. Laura tells the crowds that "since God took my hand, I have not wanted for nothing." The Sisters have been able to pay the rent and eat regular meals. Laura urges the crowd to put money in the tambourine to help her stay on God's path, and they do. One old woman, Birdie Lee, accepts salvation and takes a turn shaking the tambourine to God's glory. She is so energetic and rhythmic that she draws in more people. Although Laura does not like sharing the spotlight, she sees that letting Birdie Lee stay with them is good for business. Like many chapters, this one is sprinkled with snatches of lyrics from the hymns sung by Essie, Laura, and Birdie Lee.

Chapters 10–13

As autumn begins, Essie, Laura, and Birdie Lee find a three-room apartment to house their church. The first convert in the new location is Chicken Crow-for-Day, a lifelong gambler, drinker and womanizer. His conversion draws others. Soon, Essie has two thousand dollars in the jar where she keeps God's money. She is still uneasy about the church. She can see that she and Laura are doing some real good in the lives of other people, and she herself feels more energetic and engaged than ever before. But she knows that for Laura it is all just a scam. Essie wonders whether they are truly serving God.

Chapters 14–15

Chapters 14 and 15 are entitled "Enter Buddy" and "Enter Marty." Buddy is Big-Eyed Buddy Lomax, who takes Laura out for a drink after services. Buddy is handsome, sophisticated, flashy and young, and Laura is flattered and excited to be seen with him. Before long, Buddy spends most nights with Laura, and has gotten her to go along with a plan to sell tap water as blessed Holy Water from the Holy Land. Marty is a white man who pulls the strings and controls the money behind Buddy's schemes. Essie and Laura will never meet him, but he will do favors for them and look for ways they can help him as well.

Media Adaptations

  • The novel Tambourines to Glory was adapted by Hughes from his own musical play of the same title, with songs by Jobe Huntley. It was produced in New York in 1963, and is available in Five Plays by Langston Hughes, Indiana University Press, 1963.
  • Music from the play was recorded in 1958 on Tambourines to Glory: Gospel Songs by Langston Hughes and Jobe Huntley, performed by the Porter Singers. The original recording was Folkways album FG 03538. Still in the Folkways archives, it can be ordered as a custom CD from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Chapters 16–18

Marty gets Essie and Laura an apartment on the ninth floor of a new building overlooking the park, jumping them ahead of all the people on the waiting list. Essie is more uncomfortable than ever with Buddy and Marty in the picture. She refuses to accept any of the proceeds from the holy water, so Laura uses it to buy a Cadillac. Laura is so dazzled by Buddy's skills in bed, and his new ideas for bringing in more money from the church, that she buys him a convertible, caters to his every whim, and pretends not to notice when he spends time with other women.

Chapters 19–20

Almost a year after the church began, it is the largest independent church in Harlem, and has outgrown its quarters. Marty arranges for Laura and Essie to take possession of a condemned theater that could never pass a fire inspection, and the Tambourine Temple is born. The new church seats a thousand people, and has a marquee where Laura can enjoy seeing her name in lights. Essie has been studying the Bible and reading other religious books. She is a true believer, and she hopes that Laura will start to believe also.

Chapters 21–28

Marietta arrives to live with her mother and Laura. She is sixteen, innocent and lovely, and Buddy is attracted to her immediately. On Marietta's first day in Harlem, Laura catches Buddy kissing her. Marietta is also courted by C. J., a young guitar player from the church, who offers her less excitement but a more solid Christian relationship. Meanwhile, Marty has Laura begin a new practice of calling out "lucky texts" from the Bible, and slyly encouraging the congregation to bet on those numbers during the week. This increases the amount in the collection plate, and is good for Marty's gambling businesses. To keep suspicion off Laura and Buddy, Buddy pretends to be converted during a service, but Essie sees through him. As Laura adds a fur coat and a chauffeur to her lifestyle, she and Essie grow farther apart. Finally, Essie and Marietta move to a small house of their own in the suburbs, coming to town only for services.

Chapters 29–35

Just before a service one night, Laura notices a hundred dollars missing from her purse. She confronts Buddy, who admits without remorse that he has taken it and savagely tells her that she would be too old to hold his interest without her money. Suddenly, Buddy's infidelity and cruelty is too much, and Laura stabs him to death with Essie's pocket knife. When the body is found, Essie is suspected, and Laura joins in accusing her. In jail, Essie sings gospel songs and prays, accepting her situation as punishment for not ridding the church of Laura's corruption. Eventually Birdie Lee testifies to having witnessed the crime, and Laura confesses. Before the police take her away, she moves all her cash into the church bank account.

Chapter 36

With Laura gone, Essie, Marietta, and C. J. will lead the church in a new direction, starting a day care and other new programs to improve the lives of community members. Essie preaches and sings, praising God, and shakes the tambourine to the glory of God.


Sister Birdie Lee

Birdie Lee is a "little old lady" who is called to God during one of the Reed Sisters' street corner services. She had followed God in her younger days, but since then she "backslid, backslid, backslid." Now she has determined to stay on the path of righteousness. As is typical in this kind of service, Birdie Lee shouts out her story, or "testifies," right in the middle of Laura's preaching. She grabs the tambourine, sings a song of praise, and shakes the tambourine "so well that the whole corner started to rock and sway, feet to patting, hands to clapping." From that moment, she is a member of the church, and from that moment Laura resents her, because Laura perceives Birdie Lee as competition. Birdie Lee is a faithful member of the church, helping with the scrubbing when they move the church into the apartment, and joining in the rejoicing when Crow-for-Day is converted. In the end, her weak bladder proves Laura's undoing, when a need to rush to the toilet puts Birdie Lee in a position to witness Buddy's murder. Birdie Lee saves Essie from prison and makes up for all her past sins by promising to testify once more and tell what she saw.

C. J.

C. J. is a young Christian boy who plays guitar in the band at the Tambourine Temple. He is in his first year at City College, studying chemistry, and is sweet and polite if a little dull. When Marietta comes to Harlem, he is the natural one to court her. As the two fall in love, C. J. struggles, with Marietta's firm insistence, to keep his lust under control. By the end of the novel, the two are engaged to be married.

Chicken Crow-for-Day

Chicken Crow-for-Day—tall, thin, and aged sixty-five—is the first person converted after the Reed Sisters open their church indoors. By his own account, he has been a life-long sinner, who spent his time drinking, gambling and chasing women. Dramatically, as he announces his salvation before a crowd, he pulls a pistol and a knife out of his pockets and flings them through the window into the street. With the support of the congregation, he apparently does change his life. Crow-for-Day stays with the church as it grows, eventually earning the titles "Brother" and "Deacon."

Essie Belle Johnson

Essie Belle Johnson is an unemployed woman of about forty, living on welfare in Harlem. She came up North from Richmond, Virginia, years ago, and has been trying ever since to get together enough money to bring her daughter to live with her. Essie does not have much education or many skills, and she is passive, prone to sitting and staring at the wall in "long, long, very long pauses," but she has a beautiful singing voice. When she and her friend Laura start to joke about starting a church as a way to raise money, Essie thinks and prays about it and makes a sincere connection with God. She and Laura do form a church, with Laura preaching and Essie singing, and they make a success of it. Even before she decided to pray, Essie lived a quiet life. She did not drink or gamble or chase men. Her only close tie was with Laura, who lived quite a different life. For five years, Essie and Laura have been neighbors and friends, sharing scraps of food and looking after each other in spite of their differences. Now that they are the Reed Sisters, partners in the church, Essie is less comfortable with Laura's sins. She prays that Laura will find God, and she scolds Laura about her behavior, but she does not try to exert any control over Laura's actions. Essie refuses to take any of the money from the phony Holy Water, but neither does she speak against the scheme.

The church grows larger and more successful, and Essie sees this as a sign that her work is blessed by God. With every hymn she sings, her faith grows deeper. She turns her energy inward, into private study of the Bible and of religious writers, and withdraws emotionally from Laura. After Buddy starts sleeping at the new apartment with Laura, and Marietta arrives, the distance between the women increases until Essie and Marietta take a small house outside Harlem. It is not until Laura kills Buddy and frames Essie for the crime that Essie realizes her passiveness has worked against God's plans for her. "I should have riz in my wrath and cleaned house," she thinks, instead of "just setting doing nothing but accepting what comes, receiving the Lord's blessing whilst the eagle foulest His nest." When Essie is released from jail and returns to the church without Laura, she is a new woman, full of energy and plans for the future.

Marietta Johnson

Marietta is Essie's daughter. She has grown up in Richmond, Virginia, in the home of her grandmother, and has not lived with her mother for more than two of her sixteen years. Essie's greatest wish has been to get enough money together to bring Marietta to live with her, and after about a year of running the church she is able to send for her. In June of the second summer, after school gets out, Marietta comes North on the Greyhound Bus, as so many people have before her. She is polite, well-mannered, fresh and pretty; to Buddy she looks like "a tiny, a well-formed, a golden-skinned, a delicate-featured, a doll-handed, a pretty-as-a-picture, a blossoming peaches-and-cream of a girl." Buddy tries to move in on Marietta on her first day in Harlem, but Essie thinks the Christian boy C. J. is a better match for her. Although she found Buddy's passion exciting, Marietta agrees. Marietta and
C. J. begin a swift but chaste courtship, and by the final chapter Marietta is already planning to begin nursing studies in the fall and to marry C. J.

Buddy Lomax

"Big-Eyed" Buddy Lomax is the latest in Laura's string of young men. One night after services, Buddy walks down the church aisle and asks Laura to go out for a drink. He takes her to the Roma Gardens, which seems very elegant to Laura, and he is handsome, "a six-foot, a tower-tall, a brownskin, a large-featured, a big-handed, handsome lighthouse-grinning chocolate boy of a man." Like Laura, he likes flashy cars and clothes, he likes to drink and gamble, and he is as charming as he is dishonest. Together the two scheme to get more money from the church through the sale of phony Holy Water and through announcing "lucky texts" from the Bible that are really coded messages for playing the numbers. Only Laura believes that Buddy really loves her and is faithful to her; others can see that he is casually sexy and sexist in his dealings with her, crudely praising her large breasts and using her for sex when there are no younger women available. To keep his favor, Laura buys Buddy new clothes and a car, and gives him cash that he spends on gambling and on entertaining other women. When Marietta comes to town, Buddy makes a play for her with Laura and Essie in the next room, and Laura sees him kissing Marietta. Soon afterwards, Buddy steals a hundred dollars from Laura's purse. She confronts him in the basement of the church, and he cruelly reminds her of the difference in their ages, and admits that he stays with her only because of her money. When he pulls her in for a kiss, Laura stabs him to death with Essie's knife.


Marty is the white man behind Buddy's schemes, the man who can pull strings and get things done. He is able to get an apartment for Essie and Laura, putting them ahead of people who have been waiting longer. He arranges for them to take possession of the fire-trap theater with no inspections or licenses. Later, when his illegal numbers operation is doing poorly in Harlem, he improves his business by having Laura announce "lucky texts" during church services, encouraging the congregation to bet on the numbers in Bible verses. Marty is never seen or heard from directly in the novel—all of his communications come through Buddy.

Laura Reed

Laura Reed is Essie Belle Johnson's best friend, another woman from the South now living on welfare in Harlem. She is a little younger than Essie, with a good figure and a taste for life. She likes to drink and to gamble, and she has a string of men who pass through her life but do not stay. Laura does not really seem happy with her fast life, sharing her money and her body with men so that she will not be alone, but she does not dare slow down. When the women come up with the idea of starting a church, it is just a money-making idea for Laura. Her mother and her bootlegging stepfather did not raise her to be religious, and she does not believe in God now. But she sees no harm in taking money from those who do believe, if they are willing to give it, and she soon finds that the faithful are indeed willing to put their coins in the tambourine for a chance to be closer to God. After the first street corner service, when the women collect $11.93, Laura goes back on her promise to put all of the money toward a Bible; she takes out $3.93 for her "earthly needs"—some liquor and a bet.

The two women run the church as partners, although their motivations and their methods are as different as they could be. Laura is an effective preacher, but she does not mean anything she says from the pulpit. She uses her share of the money from the collections for gambling, clothes, highpriced liquor, a fur coat, a Cadillac, a chauffeur, and presents for Buddy, while Essie sets hers aside for the Lord's work. Laura is eager to help Buddy by selling fake Holy Water and calling out the numbers of "lucky texts" to support the gamblers. She enjoys seeing her name in lights on the new church marquee, and has a wardrobe of shiny robes to wear while she is preaching. She loves having Buddy in her bed, and tries to believe she can trust him. Greedy for more money, she sees only Essie and Buddy standing in her way: "One's too honest, and the other one ain't honest enough." Laura murders Buddy and tries to frame Essie for the crime. In the end, she is in jail, alone again, out of money, and still wanting a drink.


Faith and Religion

The central tension in Tambourines to Glory is between Essie, who sincerely believes in God and wants to help people find peace through faith, and Laura, who sees the church simply as a way to get money. The difference originates in their childhood: Essie's mother insisted Essie attend church every week when she was a girl, but Laura "seldom went . . . and never regular." Although neither woman has been to church in years, Essie has happy memories, especially of the music. And when the two are joking about starting a church and Laura sings, "Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on," she starts to mean it. From the first, Essie and Laura expect different things from the church, and each finds what she is looking for. As the narrator explains, "Playing and singing and talking were the only things about their corner that interested Laura, but these were the least that interested Essie." Essie wants to help the people who stop to hear them; Laura wants to help only herself. Essie finds a new engagement with her own life—a community, and a way to bring her daughter to live with her. Laura gets money, a fur coat, a Cadillac, and a handsome young man.

The question that repeatedly troubles Essie is one of the central questions of the novel: "Is we doing right?" Is the Tambourine Temple a force for good, although it originated as a scam? Does it matter that Laura's motives, at least, are impure? The fact is, the church really is helping people change their lives. Chicken Crow-for-Day does stop his "Sniffing after women, tailing after sin, gambling on green tables," and Birdie Lee gives up drinking. Essie finds the energy to get off her chair and shake off her lethargy. Marietta and C. J. will have a safe and comfortable—if a little dull—life together. And the Tambourine Temple, with Laura out of the picture, is going to open a day care center, a clubhouse, and a playground. Amused as he was by charlatan preachers who made themselves wealthy, Hughes could not ignore the contributions the churches made to their communities, and the changes a faith in God made in people's lives. Ultimately, perhaps it does not matter whether the preacher is sincere or even whether God really exists, especially for people with so little else to believe in. As the narrator explains about one of the Reed Sisters' songs, "For many there living in the tenements of Harlem, to believe in such wonder was worth every penny the tambourines collected."

But in the end, Good triumphs over Evil. Laura and Buddy are punished for their faithlessness. Buddy loses his life. Laura loses her self-respect, her freedom, her Cadillac, and her partnership and friendship with Essie. Although Laura also gives up all of her cash, putting it into the bank in the church's name before her arrest, by the end of the novel Laura has still not turned from her wicked ways. Her final two lines are "I have nothing now, Essie, but Jesus—since He comes free" and "Maybe somebody'll buy me a drink." Essie accepts her hours in jail and her suffering as penalty for her gravest error: failing to drive Laura and Buddy from the church. As she says, "Religion has got no business being made into a gyp game."

Ghetto Life

Just as Tambourines to Glory is a humorous but largely accurate portrayal of the storefront churches of Harlem in the middle of the twentieth century, it also illuminates other aspects of lower-class Harlem life. One of the great contributions of Hughes and other writers of the Harlem Renaissance was that their work portrayed the daily lives of African Americans, realistically and respectfully, in ways that American literature had not done previously. The lives of the lower class were especially invisible to the reading public. While many knew about the Harlem Renaissance, about the intellectual life of Harlem, and about the exciting night life available to wealthier whites and blacks, the underclass was nearly invisible. Hughes knew that Laura and Essie and Buddy and Birdie Lee were not the people who would buy his novel; his intention was to tell their stories to people who knew only one side of Harlem.

Topics For Further Study

  • Research the career of the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. In what ways is she a role model for Essie? What does Laura admire about her?
  • How important is race to Tambourines to Glory? How would the story be different if all of the characters were white, or Latino, or if people of different ethnic groups lived in the neighborhood?
  • Why does the trick with the Holy Water from the Jordan River work? People living in Harlem must know that these two women would have no way of actually obtaining water from Jordan. What makes them believe the words on the bottles?
  • In what ways are the challenges faced by Essie and Laura, living in New York City after growing up in the South, like those faced by any other immigrants (for example, like people who came to New York from Puerto Rico or from China)? In what ways are they different?
  • Research the economic opportunities for undereducated poor people today. What kinds of jobs are available for people with a high school or less level of education? What kinds of financial aid are available for higher education? What kinds of housing are available for someone working a minimum-wage job? What industries and businesses are located in big cities? Are poor people better off today than they were in 1958?
  • Would Tambourines to Glory make a good movie? What changes in the story would have to be made in order to make the story appealing to today's audiences? Who would you cast in the leading roles?

The building where Essie and Laura live is a large apartment building with "a courtyard full of beer cans and sacks of garbage." The building has been carved up into a surprising number of tiny "kitchenette" units, each with a gas burner and a sink. Essie and Laura, who dream of one day having a two- or three-room apartment, have welfare as their only source of income, but everyone else who lives on their floor has a job. Laura has held several jobs in the past, but has not been able to hold one very long. The available work does not pay well, since it has not enabled even the working residents to find better housing. The women are often hungry. Even Essie, who does not waste money on gambling or alcohol, often has no more than rice to eat if Laura cannot contribute a bit of meat or vegetables to the pot.

Almost all of the characters in the novel and in the neighborhood are African American, but there are white men behind the scenes making profits. (It has been estimated that in 1929, eighty percent of Harlem's businesses were owned by whites.) Laura urges passers-by to put some of their money in the tambourine rather than giving it to "the paddys [Irishmen] that owns these Harlem guzzle joints," or, in other words, "instead of it all going right to the white man." White police officers, apartment managers, and fire inspectors will take bribes to overlook violations or grant favors. The mysterious Marty, another white man, is in charge of the numbers racket in the neighborhood. Men like Buddy can earn a decent living working for the gambling or sex trades, but all assume and accept that white men are in charge.

This Harlem is populated with "pimps and gamblers and whores," and although she has never had any trouble, Essie carries a knife for protection. But there is also the young artist who paints beautiful murals on the church walls, and C. J., who attends college and plays the guitar. Hughes is not presenting Harlem as bad or dangerous, but as a place pulsing with life of all sorts, with "Auto horns ... honking, taxis flying by, arc lights blinking, people passing up and down the street, restaurants and bars full." Even for the poor it is an exciting, teeming city—"Mighty magnet of the colored race ... Harlem, a chocolate ice cream cone in New York's white napkin."


Scenic Method

Tambourines to Glory is a short novel—barely one hundred pages in the Collected Works of Langston Hughes edition—yet it is divided into thirty-six chapters, several just over a page long.

Most of the chapters are self-contained, small glimpses into brief moments in the lives of the characters. Chapter 1, for example, is six pages long and takes about fifteen minutes to read (if one sings along with the characters); it describes a conversation that would last about fifteen minutes in "real life." The only background information, after a two-sentence exposition that identifies the day as Palm Sunday, is provided by the characters as they speak to each other. Throughout the novel, there is little explanation or reflection from the narrator, only the briefest description of settings, and no extended internal monologues. Sixteen chapters begin abruptly with one of the characters speaking or singing; twenty-two end this way. A few chapters begin with brief tag lines that identify the passing of time ("The next morning," "The winter prospered them," "When June came"), but changes in Essie's and Laura's fortunes and behavior are communicated directly by their speaking or their actions.

The novelist Henry James (1843–1916) frequently structured his novels this way, and Hughes may have been inspired by his work. More likely, the structure of Tambourines to Glory arises from the fact that it was a play before it was a novel. Although the play version comprises only thirteen scenes, the novel echoes the play's reliance on foregrounded speech and action, rather than on reflection or exposition, to carry the plot and theme forward.


Foreshadowing is a device used by authors to suggest or prepare for something that is going to happen later. Tambourines to Glory uses foreshadowing to set up Laura's killing of Buddy, so that when it happens it feels like a natural outcome of what has come before, instead of a sudden unconnected idea that has sprung into the author's mind. In Chapter 3, Hughes makes the first mention of Essie's knife, "a long pearl-handled knife" with "a little button on its side" that releases a "thin sharp blade." Essie uses the knife to clean her fingernails, and returns it to her coat pocket, where she keeps it for protection. As the narrator confirms, there is really no other reason for Essie to carry this knife, and the scene of Essie cleaning her fingernails has no particular purpose in the action of the novel, other than to introduce the idea of the knife.

Throughout the rest of the novel, there are occasional references to the knife in the pocket, or to the fact that, although Laura buys a new fur coat, Essie is content with her heavy old black one. In Chapter 29, just before Laura kills Buddy, Laura and Essie quarrel over Laura's fur coat. Laura says, "You keep on wearing your old rags if you want to, with that same old Lenox Avenue knife of yours in that ragged pocket. What are you protecting?" With the knife in Essie's pocket fresh in the reader's mind, Hughes is able to make the murder scene move swiftly, without interrupting it to explain what Laura is taking out of Essie's coat. Although some of the early references to the knife are worked in somewhat awkwardly, the excitement and drama Hughes achieves in the climactic scene through foreshadowing make up for that awkwardness.

Dialect and Diction

An important element that adds to the liveliness of Tambourines to Glory is Hughes's use of various African American urban dialects of the 1950s. Contemporary reviewers of the work almost universally praised Hughes's success at capturing the sounds of real speech. The novel, having originated as a play, contains a great deal of dialogue (Chapters 1 and 15, for example, are almost entirely conversations between two characters, with little exposition or description), and each character's way of speaking reflects something of her background or personality. Essie and Laura retain a trace of the South in their informal speech, as when Essie says, "Somehow I kinder like to keep my head clear," and Laura replies, "Woman, you sound right simple." Their speech is full of colorful metaphors, such as the many ways Laura describes her various lovers ("Old racoon," "chocolate boy with the coconut eyes," "my king-size Hershey bar"). And it is by their grammar and by their pronunciation of "likker" and "lemme" and "gonna," as much as by their clothing and their living situations, that Hughes flags them as members of the socioeconomic underclass.

As Essie begins to study the Bible, she begins to drop phrases from it into her speech. When Laura is preaching, she speaks with a distinct rhythm and repetition: "Turn! I say turn! Turn your steps toward God this evening, join up with us, and stand up for Jesus on this corner.... Talk, speak, shout, declare your determination. Who will stand up and testify for Him?" Buddy's speech marks him as a young man who knows the latest style, when he calls Laura "baby" or "sugar" or "kiddo," when he talks about money as "a few Abe Lincolns and some tens" or "fifty simoleons" and when he describes that "sharp little chick" Marietta as "stacked, solid, neat-all-reet, copasetic, baby!" Marietta, newly arrived from the South, speaks in a way that is slightly more formal, more quiet, more shy than the others' speech patterns.

Hughes was primarily a poet, and he had spent decades developing his instinct for the sound of language. Additionally, he had written the play form of the story first, so many of the lines spoken by the characters were crafted to be said aloud. None of the differences in speech are pointed out by the narrator or commented upon by the characters. Just as he trusts the reader to somehow hear the lyrics of the hymns sung throughout the novel, Hughes trusts the reader to hear and interpret the different ways of speaking.

Historical Context

The Great Migration

Between about 1890 and 1930, some two-and-a-half million African Americans moved from the American South to cities in the North, in what came to be called the Great Migration. Although the slaves had been freed, there were still few opportunities in the South for good jobs and property ownership, because the economy in the South was faltering, and because Jim Crow laws in the South increasingly made life difficult for African Americans. Legally and culturally, African Americans could be and were denied the vote, employment, housing, and other basic needs. In the large cities of the North, especially along the East Coast, factories needed workers. The largest migration occurred during World War I and afterward, when factories needed workers to replace those who had gone to fight, European immigration was low, and there was an increased need for the manufacture of certain wartime goods. More than a half million African Americans, like the Tambourines to Glory characters Essie Belle Johnson and Laura Reed, left their homes in the South and came North. Though they typically received only the lowest, unskilled jobs, and although they earned less than white employees doing the same work, many of these African American migrants still found greater opportunity than they had left behind in the South. But families like Essie's were common. Adults frequently left children behind with relatives, hoping that in a few months or years they would earn enough to bring their children North with them. For single women, especially, this dream was in many cases never realized, as hoped-for jobs did not materialize.

In New York City, as in other cities and as with other immigrant groups, African Americans congregated in one section. Harlem, on the northern end of the island of Manhattan, became a magnet for migrating African Americans. It then grew into a center for African American thought and culture in the 1920s and 1930s. The mingling of rural Southern people and Northern people used to big cities, and the interplay of their various artistic, social, and religious traditions, produced a rich and lively new culture. The movement known as the Harlem Renaissance fed Langston Hughes and other important writers, musicians and artists, who for the first time portrayed urban black life realistically and sympathetically.

The Storefront Church

A direct result of the Great Migration was the creation in Harlem and other Northern cities of a large number of "storefront" churches. Most of the African Americans who came to Harlem were from small rural towns where they were well-known, and where their church membership gave them a standing in the community that their working lives did not. Coming to large cities, they found large impersonal churches with hundreds of members, preachers who led a different kind of service than they were used to, and different kinds of music. Additionally, these churches tended not to be located in the very poorest neighborhoods, where new immigrants settled. Some immigrants delighted in the size and the prestige of the modern urban churches, but many felt lost and unwelcome.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1950s: African Americans are still moving from the rural South to big cities in the North, hoping for good jobs and equal opportunity. Segregation, racism and a weak economy hinder many of their efforts.

    2000s: The Great Migration is over, and is reversing. Since the 1960s, many African Americans, especially from the middle class, have left the North and moved to large cities in the South.

  • 1950s: Harlem is in economic decline as middle-class African Americans move out, leaving only the poor behind. Half of all housing units are unsound.

    2000s: Harlem is gradually being gentrified as middle- and upper-class African Americans return. They are buying and fixing up formerly run-down homes, causing housing prices to rise dramatically. Former President Bill Clinton opens an office in Harlem, and wealthy black business owners are opening businesses there.

  • 1950s: Public schools in the South are segregated, by law and by custom. Many black students attend all-black schools, even after a 1954 Supreme Court decision rules that separate schools are inherently unequal.

    2000s: Public schools across the United States are by law open to all students regardless of race or creed, but schools in many large cities are segregated by socioeconomic class because middle-class families have left the cities or can afford to send their children to private schools.

  • 1950s: Public transportation in the Northern United States is more integrated than in the Southern states. After 1955, interstate trains and buses are forbidden by law to segregate their passengers. Boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, and Tallahassee, Florida, force the integration of local public transportation in 1956.

    2000s: Interstate bus travel tends to be segregated by socioeconomic class, with only poorer people and young people choosing bus travel. Within New York City, public buses, subways, and commuter trains are used by a wide variety of people from different races, religions, and social classes.

To meet their spiritual needs, African Americans began to form loosely organized churches in local neighborhoods, often led by semi-literate preachers (with or without any ministerial training), holding meetings on street corners or in abandoned or condemned stores or houses. These churches were Christian, but typically not affiliated with any major denomination. Preachers spoke in stark terms about heaven and hell, about sin and redemption, and led the singing of spirituals and old folk songs that the rural congregation knew. Members of the congregation felt free to shout out or start a song, as they had done at home. During the 1920s, nearly two-thirds of the churches in Harlem were of the storefront variety. Only a few eventually outgrew their storefront locations and moved to larger venues, or built permanent structures. Because new churches were forming all the time, whenever a new mass of uneducated poor people moved into a neighborhood, it was relatively easy for charlatans to establish churches for the sole purpose of making money. Like Essie and Laura, they may have had no experience and questionable motives; also like Essie and Laura, they may have done some real good in peoples' lives.

Gospel Music

The music called "gospel music" was a particular form created and perfected by African Americans during the 1920s, a fusion of the blues and old-style Christian hymns. This music was frequently sung in urban churches, giving a new city edge to the traditional hymns that people had been singing down South. The song that Essie and Laura sing in Chapter 1, for example, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," was a popular song in this tradition, written by Thomas A. Dorsey. Hughes loved this kind of music, wrote reviews and columns about it, and incorporated it into several plays and into this novel. Over the years, gospel music remained an important part of worship, but also became a style of music for commercial entertainment. Flashily dressed singers performed gospel music in theaters and clubs. Hughes noticed with amusement that many gospel singers were more interested in money than in the Lord. And many of them did make good money.

In Chapter 10, Laura comments that, "These gospel songs is about the only thing the white folks ain't latched onto yet. But they will, as soon as they find out there's dough in 'em." She mentions Mahalia Jackson (c. 1911–1972), a famous gospel singer with a remarkable voice. Jackson herself had become a commercial success, equally well-known among black and white people through radio and television appearances, but her faith would not allow her to sing hymns in nightclubs. (Laura quotes her in Chapter 21: "You know what Mahalia Jackson says: 'The church will be here when the night clubs are gone.'") Instead, Jackson sang a concert in New York's Carnegie Hall and other respectable venues, and released record albums, thus helping make gospel music available to a larger and more diverse audience without compromising her convictions.

Critical Overview

Compared with the poetry, little critical attention has been paid to Hughes's prose, and the novel Tambourines to Glory has yet to receive serious critical analysis. In fact, several reference works completely overlook Tambourines to Glory, listing Not without Laughter (1930) as Hughes's only novel. But, because of Hughes's importance, the novel was widely, if not always favorably, reviewed upon publication in the most important periodicals of the day.

Most critics admired the novel's humor and liveliness, and were captivated by the author's obvious affection for his characters. In the Saturday Review, Richard Gehman wrote that the novel "develops with a natural, effortless simplicity and an unassuming authority," and that it "is full of vitality, earthiness, joy, unashamed religious feeling, and humorous perspective." Arna Bontemps, in a review for the New York Herald Tribune, called the writing "as ribald, as effortless, and on the surface as artless as a folk ballad," and commented on the "fondness and humor" with which Hughes created his characters. Reviewers were nearly universal in feeling that even though Essie and Laura and Buddy made mistakes and caused some mischief, it was impossible in the end not to like them.

Even the most favorable reviews considered the novel only a slight work. Critics who found weaknesses in the novel generally faulted the plot itself, especially the violent ending. In the New York Times Book Review, Gilbert Millstein acknowledged "the consistently high quality of Hughes's production over the years," but described Tambourines to Glory as a "minor effort . . . with an industriously contrived climax." LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), himself a well-regarded African American writer, was much harsher in his Jazz Review article, describing the novel's "horribly inept plot."

For readers of all colors in the 1950s, novels by African American writers or featuring African American characters were something of a novelty. A few of the reviews by white writers are interesting now, more than fifty years after they were written, because of the dated language and ideas they express, even as they praise Tambourines to Glory. Marion Turner Clarke, for example, writing in the Baltimore Evening Sun, admired the novel as "rough and unvarnished but pulsing with the life of a vigorous race." Marty Sullivan, in the Fort Wayne News Sentinel, called the novel a "blessed exception" to a trend toward didacticism in novels with African American characters, and also finds it "a fine look into the colorful, earthy and endlessly inventive Negro speech."

When Tambourines to Glory was reissued in 2001 in Volume 4 of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, critics again had an opportunity to consider the long-neglected novel, which had gone out of print. Reviewing the volume for the Journal of Modern Literature, Roland L. Williams Jr. finds more to praise in Hughes's intentions "to honor and hearten blacks" than he does in the actual writing. Still, he admires the novel's presentation of an important period in history, and assures readers that "they will come to dig the roots and branches of black music."


Cynthia Bily

Bily teaches English at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. In this essay, Bily examinesHughes's novel and an earlier poem through a Marxist lens.

Essie Belle Johnson, one of the main characters of Langston Hughes's novel Tambourines to Glory, is numb. Her only goal since she arrived in the North has been to get enough money for a two- or three-room apartment so she can bring her daughter to live with her. After more than a dozen years, however, she has only a one-room kitchenette in the Rabbit Warren, a building of tiny one-room units housing as many as three or four people each. The view out her window is of "a courtyard full of beer cans and sacks of garbage." There is no child care for these crowded families; children coming home from school entertain themselves until their parents come home from work. But paying rent on this awful place takes most of Essie's monthly check, so that she has a hard time getting food. She and Laura pool their resources when they can, but in Chapter 4 they have nothing but a pot of rice for dinner, as neither of them can come up with a bit of meat or even some gravy for flavoring. Essie spends a lot of her time sitting, her mind "kind of empty" in one of her "long, long, very long pauses." Essie has given up on trying to find a good job, and lives off welfare, but it was not always this way. She tells her friend Laura Reed, "It ain't easy to get ahold of money. I've tried. Lord knows I've tried to get ahead." As a poor, African American, overweight, under-educated woman in the 1950s, Essie does not have much chance of improving her situation. She is resigned to her fate.

Laura has more energy, but she does not see herself as a contributor, or even a potential contributor, to society. Her relief investigator wonders why she cannot hold a job, but Laura thinks of the welfare check as "white folks' money" and sees no reason why she should work for it if she can get the same amount without working. She has dreams of accumulating cars and furs, but she has no vision of herself doing satisfying or important work. Like Essie, Laura does not have many options. Her most marketable asset is her body—the curvy figure and large breasts with which she can attract a man. Once her beauty is gone, she will have no way to escape her situation. Essie and Laura are the only two people on their floor who do not have jobs to go to, but their lack of industriousness is obviously not the only reason they do not have decent housing—apparently, even many hard-working people cannot find anything better than the "Rabbit Warren." As Laura reminds Essie, no one can get an apartment in Harlem "unless you got enough money to pay under the table."

Essie and Laura, ground down by their poverty, are sad at times, and they dream of better days, but they are never angry. Why not? In a wealthy industrialized nation that produces millionaires and mansions, why should there be people who cannot earn a fair wage and live in a decent home? Essie believes she simply "was borned to bad luck." Where did she get the idea that she cannot change her life?

In the nineteenth century, the philosopher and economist Karl Marx asked similar questions. He wondered why poor people around the world—who outnumber wealthy people by far—did not join together in revolution to make their lives better. Why would thousands of factory workers settle for low wages when a few corporate heads were earning millions from the labor of the many? Capitalist societies, Marx argued, drove people to compete with each other instead of helping each other, and to seek out material goods that are not useful except as signs of status, instead of using surplus money to support others who need it. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), he and economist Friedrich Engels predicted that eventually the working classes would seize control, abolish private property, and distribute wealth evenly and fairly.

According to Marxist theory, lower-class people are trained to accept belief systems, called ideologies, that keep them apart from each other and kept them in the lower class. Why do relatively low-income Americans fight against relatively low-income Iraqis, instead of joining together to seize wealth from the people who control it? Because they have accepted an ideology called nationalism that teaches them that their primary loyalty is to their country, not to others in their social class. Why do many poor people accept their poverty instead of challenging the system that keeps them poor? Because they have accepted another ideology—religion—that teaches them that God is in control, and that their reward will come later, when they reach Heaven. In a work called Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right (1844), Marx famously called religion the "opiate of the masses." He meant that religion worked like the drug opium, keeping all who used it calm and unquestioning.

Marx's ideas were argued about and expanded on over the next century, and formed the basis for the socialist government of the former Soviet Union. Hughes considered and reconsidered these ideas throughout his long writing career, and often explored the connections between racism and class conflict in his work. In the 1930s, much of Hughes's writing took a strident political tone, as in his 1932 poem "Goodbye Christ," published in the labor journal The Negro Worker. In this poem, perhaps his most controversial, the speaker tells Jesus Christ that although "You did all right in your day, I reckon," he has outlasted his usefulness and should exit the stage. They have "sold [Jesus] to too many," and "ain't no good no more." In this period, Hughes was more outraged than amused by those he saw as phony preachers using religion to become wealthy or famous. He believed they were complicit in keeping poor believers poor and quiet. The poem's speaker lists several specific offenders:

And please take Saint Ghandi [sic] with you when
you go
And Saint Pope Pius
And Saint Aimee McPherson
And big black Saint Becton
Of the Consecrated Dime.

The poem suggests a replacement for Jesus, "a new guy with no religion at all": "Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME."

What Do I Read Next?

  • The first volume of Hughes's autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), covers approximately the first thirty years of his life, including his early encounters with salvation and African American churches.
  • Hughes is best known as a poet, and The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994), running more than seven hundred pages, shows the depth and range of his poetic talents. The poem "Tambourines" is similar to the song Essie sings at the end of the novel.
  • Tambourines to Glory has sometimes been compared to Elmer Gantry (1927), a novel by Sinclair Lewis about a phony preacher who comes to lead a large church in the Midwest. The tone of Lewis's novel is somber and judgmental, without Hughes's humor and musicality.
  • One Way to Heaven (1931), by Countee Cullen, another novel about life in Harlem, examines the tensions between lower-class and middle-class African American society.
  • All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924) is a play about racial prejudice in Harlem. Written by Eugene O'Neill, a white playwright, the play shows the struggles facing a white woman who marries a black man.
  • Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans (2001), by Albert J. Raboteau, describes urban storefront churches and how they grew out of the "Great Migration," while providing a context within the larger story of religious tradition.

These first four historical figures were examples for Hughes of how ideology can be misused. Mohandas Gandhi, the leader in the 1930s and 1940s of the independence movement in India, organized nonviolent acts of civil disobedience by Indian peasants. Pope Pius XI, head of the Roman Catholic Church from 1922 to 1939, opposed labor movements and communism. Aimee Semple McPherson, an evangelical preacher in the 1920s, founded the Church of the Four Square Gospel and became a millionaire before financial and sexual scandals eroded her following. And George Wilson Becton was the founder of a church in Harlem, the World's Gospel Feast, which asked members for donations of "consecrated dimes." By linking these four, the angry speaker of Goodbye Christ presents them as equally harmful.

Some twenty-five years later, Hughes's ideas about religion and Marxism had undergone change. He came to admire Gandhi and supported his efforts in the early 1940s, and he became less admiring of Stalin and the Soviet Union. But even though Hughes's answers were becoming more moderate, he could still be seen wrestling with some of the old questions. In Tambourines to Glory, Laura refers to two of the names on Hughes's list when she and Essie first think about starting a church: "Remember Elder Becton? Remember that white woman back in depression days, Aimee Semple McPherson, what put herself on some wings and opened up a temple and made a million dollars?" By 1958, when both Becton and Semple were long dead, Hughes's opinion of their sanctity had not changed, but he was able now to treat their deceptions with humor instead of pure anger. For Laura, of course, Becton and McPherson are good examples—of how to fleece poor believers.

Marxist theory would say that Tambourines to Glory presents a society that has unevenly distributed its material goods and the means to acquire them. In the beginning, Laura and Essie have so accepted their lower-class status that they do not try very hard to move up. Later, Essie and Laura and Buddy improve their status through varying degrees of underhandedness, but there simply are not many other options open to them. For example, no matter how successful they become, they could never get an apartment without the support of Marty, "The fixer, the man behind the men behind the men." The economic system is not set up to fairly distribute housing.

Laura demonstrates Marx's idea that a capitalist economy teaches people to value the wrong things. Laura does not care about helping the members of her church. Capitalism teaches competitiveness, a "me first" way of dealing with other people. As Laura says to Essie, who wants to stay after services and talk to the people, "You've done helped yourself. You might can help them.... but why bother?" Laura has no qualms about taking nickels and dimes from people who can scarcely afford to give them. She does not want a more just world, or a better life for everyone—she wants a fur coat, a Cadillac, and a chauffeur. None of these things has what Marxists call a "use value"; that is, they do not have any real purpose. A worn black coat is just as warm as a fur, and a smaller car (or the bus) would get Laura where she needed to go. Essie's plain black robes serve her just as well as Essie's colorful satin robes with contrasting trim. The things Laura has been trained to want have only "sign value," or the power to impress other people. Laura's wasteful spending is an example of conspicuous consumption.

Essie demonstrates some qualities that Marxists would admire. She is not greedy or competitive. She thinks that "maybe that is the way to help ourselves—by helping others." She never takes ownership of the money she takes in from the church, but thinks of it as God's, and she lends it freely to Birdie Lee when Birdie Lee needs to get a tooth pulled. Essie will not take any of the profit from the fake Holy Water. But Essie does not challenge the way things are. She does not wonder why God would set up a system that dooms millions of people to starvation while others feast. She does not encourage her followers to take political action to try to change the structure of society. What would happen if the thousand members of the Tambourine Temple spent an hour a week converging on City Hall, or the White House, instead of gathering to sing and pray? Essie accepts basic inequalities, and uses her resources to make small improvements within the existing structures.

Hughes never gave up on his idea that some form of a socialist economy would be more just than capitalism. Ultimately, Tambourines to Glory condemns the unequal distribution of power, material goods and hope that capitalism fosters. But what Hughes acknowledges in Tambourines to Glory is that, while religion may in fact be an "opiate for the masses," the churches often do work that no other institution will do. With Laura out of the picture, Essie will use the Tambourine Temple's money to provide day care for working mothers, a clubhouse, and a playground. Marietta will help care for the sick. True, in a just society, day care and health care would already exist for everyone who needed it. But in the meantime, in an unjust capitalist society, a church whose leader has a social conscience can stand as an oasis of equality and compassion.

Source: Cynthia Bily, Critical Essay on Tambourines to Glory, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Joyce Hart

Hart is a freelance writer and author of several books. In this essay, Hart examines the significance of the metaphor of the tambourine in Hughes's Tambourines to Glory.

In Langston Hughes's Tambourines to Glory, the tambourine is used as a major metaphor in the story. The metaphor starts with the realization of the double use of the tambourine. First, the musical instrument is used as an inexpensive and simple accompaniment to street-corner singing, a way to help attract a crowd and keep that crowd involved. But once the crowd is roused, the tambourine then takes on a different meaning as it is turned upside down and passed around much like a beggar's bowl, into which donations are dropped and then carried away. This is the beginning of the metaphor, but it goes a lot deeper when one realizes the similarities between the tambourine's two different sides and the two main female characters of this story.

Essie and Laura are women on the edge. They live in tight quarters on a tight budget. And when a brilliant idea about an easy way of making money crosses Laura's mind, she quickly convinces Essie that it could be their ticket out of poverty. "Say, Essie, why don't you and me start a church." Essie can sing and Laura knows how to preach. What more could they need? And with this, the two women, whom Hughes patiently describes as two different sides of a similar coin, set off to convert their neighborhood. Their motives may have been somewhat related to each other at the beginning of their venture but as the story develops, it is their expanding differences that stretch them far apart, inevitably forcing their connection to snap.

Essie is a pious woman, innocent and full of love. And when she sings, people stop to listen and eventually join in. Essie is the musical side of the tambourine. Her rhythm is smooth and steady. And the songs she sings are soothing and uplifting. She makes the people around her want to forget their troubles, turn their hearts to God, and believe. Sinners repent, and the psychologically wounded begin to heal. As musical as Essie is, she is like the tambourine in another way too. She needs to be played. She sits all day, alone in her apartment, doing nothing to better herself. She is lonesome but does nothing to ease that pain. She misses her daughter, but does not work toward bringing her child to her. She just sits in a corner and collects dust. Without Laura prompting her, like someone gently beating a hand against the skin of the tambourine, no one would hear Essie's music. Nothing new would happen in Essie's life. Someone needs to pick her up, turn her around, and pump the music out of her.

Laura is the motivator. "You God's handmaiden," Essie tells Laura, "even if you do not always act like a holy maiden do." But Laura is also the open, cupped hand. No matter what she does, she is always asking someone to help her. It is not that she is incapable of taking care of herself, but she is better at prompting others to nourish her. She eats at Essie's house. She sleeps with men who buy her presents. And when she begins to preach, it is not redemption of lost souls that she is seeking. She preaches to make people believe that in giving her money they will be saved. Laura is manipulative and uncaring and hollow. Whereas Essie is open and honest, Laura always has a scheme. Laura is the tambourine turned on its head. People look at the tambourine, and they see an instrument of music, so they do not question the emptiness of the "bowl" formed by the underside of the tambourine. They listen to Laura and think they are hearing the music of God talking to them. In gratitude for inspiring them, they dig into their pockets when Laura passes through the crowd with her concave tambourine, and they do their best to fill it up. At first, only nickels and dimes drop into the tambourine. But as time goes by, that tambourine's appetite increases. The more Laura gets, the more she wants. There is one big difference, however, between a real tambourine and Laura. Whereas the real tambourine has a finite capacity, Laura's greed is endless.

The title of Hughes's novel uses the plural form of the word tambourine despite the fact that the main characters of this story own only one tambourine. They start out with one tambourine and one bible. So why does Hughes use the plural form? What other tambourine is he referring to? Maybe he uses the concept of more than one tambourine to exemplify the differences in the two main characters, anticipating the eventual split between Essie and Laura at the end of the novel. And if this is so, then his meaning of glory more than likely reflects two different definitions.

Essie is one type of tambourine, and because her tambourine differs from Laura's, the version of glory that she represents is most likely defined in different terms. Glory for Essie implies beauty and grandeur. And Essie does exemplify both. Her beauty reigns best when one looks inside of her. She gets caught up with Laura's ideas of starting a church not for the money but rather for the peace of mind, the inspiration, and the passion of doing good works. She does not deny herself the rewards of her trade, but she puts aside most of it with an eye to sharing the benefits with those who need it the most. "This is the Lord's money," Essie tells Laura. And as the narrator relates: "Essie did not think it [the money] belonged to her. Essie thought it ought to go in some way to the works of God." She uses the money to enhance the church, enlarging it so more people can come. She wants to add a nursery or pre-school and a medical clinic. Essie's glory is the beneficial side of pride—a confidence that she can do good.

Laura's glory is something else. It is more along the lines of credit and fame. She could care less about anyone else's pain or conversion, unless, of course, it means more profit. She buys sparkling things that make her stand out in a crowd, boasting that she has done well for herself. She takes on a young, flashy lover for the same reason. Laura's glory is all wrapped up in her pride. Hers is a superficial glory. It does not feed her soul, but rather threatens to destroy her.

Laura's jealousy and greed have taken control of her. "I wish Essie would get holy enough or lazy enough or something to quit my Temple," Laura thinks to herself near the end of the story. "All they [the congregation] have to do is see her up there, and they feel happy." Essie is getting in the way of Laura's money-making scheme: "But look at the money I would make without her." These sentiments that come out of Laura sum up Hughes's intent for writing this novel. The empty tambourine, the one turned upside down, will always be empty, no matter how many times it is filled up with coins. The instrument was made to create music not to collect funds. Just as, in Hughes's vision, the instrument of the mind, body, and soul was made to create goodness and compassion. Essie's dreams were answered, and the answers fulfilled her. She wanted to do something worthwhile with her life. She also wanted the means of bringing her daughter back to her. She took advantage of Laura's ideas and impetus to manifest her dreams. And she was duly rewarded. But she never stopped making music. She enjoyed singing, but the singing was not an end in itself. The singing was an expression of her love and compassion for the people around her. In helping others, she helped herself.

Laura, on the other hand, represents for Hughes all the things that are wrong in a community. Laura is a charlatan and a leech. She has an insatiable hunger for material things. Her goals are ambiguous, and therefore she can never reach them. She wants money, but how much money will ever be enough? Even Laura refers to money as the "apple of evil," at one point, as if she recognizes to some degree that money will eventually be the cause of her being kicked out of paradise. But she does not pay any attention to her own thoughts. Instead, she tells Essie to don the fancy white robe Laura has bought for her. "Just being robed in goodness," she tells Essie, "is not enough for the type of folks we attract. They like color, glitter, something to look at." But of course, Laura is dead wrong. Her values are all mixed up. The riches that the congregation is looking for has very little to do with money and glitter. But Laura lives too close to the surface to understand that. She flits from thought to thought without taking the time to meditate on any one of them. She complains that all that Essie does is sit, exhibiting a passiveness for which Laura is incapable. While Essie sits, Laura schemes. And it is during this quiet time that Essie reaches something so deep inside of her that it connects her to all the people who come to the church. Essie touches the essence of humanity, and it makes her real. So when she sings with that tambourine in her hand, the people not only hear the music, they also feel it.

At the climax, Laura puts on her scarlet robe. And as she stabs her boyfriend in the back, Hughes writes: "Her scarlet robe swept upward like velvet wings." Then he adds: "Laura's fists went up into the air and their fingers opened like two frightening claws." Through these two descriptive phrases, should any reader be left that does not quite grasp what Laura has become, Hughes creates the image of a fallen angel. After her hideous crime, Laura ascends to the altar, and the Tambourine Choir (yes, the tambourines are now multiplied) joins her in a song that contains the lines: "I'm going to lay down my soul / At the foot of the cross, / Yes, and tell my Jesus / Just what sin has cost . . ." This is Laura's last assault on the church she has helped to create. For she sings words that have, for her, no meaning. She has just killed a man and is about to send her best friend to jail for the crime. She is an empty tambourine, indeed.

Then, in the final chapters, one of the congregation saves Essie's life, just as Essie had saved hers. "Oh, if I had just brought my tambourine," Birdie Lee says at the prison, "I would shake it here in jail to God's glory, to you, Sister Essie, who by your goodness lifted me up out of the muck and mire of Harlem and put my feet on the rock of grace." And that, by Hughes's account, is what the tambourine is really meant for. It is to be played for God's glory, a glory that he uses Essie to elucidate. The final song that Hughes ends this novel with begins: "If you've got a tambourine, / Shake it to the glory of God!" And that is just what Essie did.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Tambourines to Glory, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

John W. Parker

In the following review, Parker follows Hughes's representation of the black gospel tradition in Tambourines to Glory, noting the way the characters succeed by commercializing religion.

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Le Roi Jones

In the following review, Jones discusses the position of Tambourines to Glory between the more subjective folk tradition of "Negro literature" and the more universal idea of the "Negro in literature."

I suppose, by now, Langston Hughes's name is synonymous with "Negro Literature." For many, he is the only Negro in the world of books. This, of course, is unfortunate. But in quite another sense this is as it should be. Hughes is probably the last "major" Negro writer who will be allowed to write what could be called a "Negro Literature" (as differentiated from literature in general): to impose upon himself such staggering limitations.

Now, don't for a moment take this to be a plea for "assimilationist" literature (i.e., novels, etc. written by Negroes that assiduously avoid any portrayal of Negro life in much the same way that the "Black Bourgeoisie" avoid any attempt to connect them, even vicariously, with blues, jazz, "greens" or anything else even remotely "Negroid"). I am merely saying, that the Negro artist, and especially the Negro writer, A. E. (After Ellison), has come too far and has experienced so much that cannot be, even vaguely, attributed to the "folk tradition." And that to confine all of his thinking, hence all his writing to that tradition (with no thought as to where that tradition has got to; what significance that tradition has, say, in relation to the macrocosm of American life in general, or for that matter, man's life on earth) is to deny that there is any body of experience outside of that tradition. A kind of ethnic solipsism. Poet Robert Creeley says (in quite another context . . . but with the same general implications . . .) "A tradition becomes inept when it blocks the necessary conclusion: it says we have felt nothing, it implies others have felt more." This does not mean that the Negro writer, for instance, ought to stop using Negro Life In America as a theme; but certainly that theme ought only to be a means. For the Negro writer to confuse that means with the end (let us arbitrarily say that end is "art") is stultifying and dangerous. For these reasons, Hughes, to my mind, is a folklorist. He abdicated from the world of literature just after his second book of verse (Fine Clothes to the Jew: 1927); since then, he has sort of crept backwards and away from significant literature, until finally (with this book) he has gotten to a kind of meaningless ethnic name-dropping.

I am pretty well acquainted with the Negro in literature. I know of Hughes's early writing: his first novel (Not without Laughter, 1930), his early poetry (some of it very beautiful, a rough mixture of spoken blues, Masters, and Imagists). I know of his affiliation with the "Harlem School" (Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and a few others) and the importance and merit of the "School" (Toomer's novel Cane is among the three greatest novels ever written by a Negro in America. The others: Richard Wright's Native Son, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man). I also know of the "School's" (or at least Hughes's) wonderful credo ... "To express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If the white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter . . . If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either." This credo almost singularly served to notify the world that the Negro artist had got to the point where he was ready to challenge that world solely on the basis of his art. Hughes's attitude, along with the even fiercer attitude of Claude McKay, and the more intellectually sound attitudes of Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen, was a far cry from the "head patting" parochial "literature" of Chesnutt, Dixon, Dunbar and the so-called "Talented Tenth" of the 1890's. Hughes and the rest were interested in dispelling once and for all the Negro novel of apology.... (For example, from an early novel by a Negro, Charles Chesnutt; he relates an incident where "A refined Afro-American is forced to share a Jim Crow car with dirty, boisterous, and drunken Negroes.") . . . of fawning appeals for "an alliance between the better class of colored people and the quality white folks." The "School" was also reacting against the need for a Negro artist to be a pamphleteer, a social organizer, or, for that matter, anything else except an artist. This, of course, was the beginning of the Negro in literature; and the beginning of the end for a "Negro literature."

"Negro literature" is simply folk literature, in the sense I choose to take it. It has the same relationship to literature per se (that is, to that writing which can be fully significant to all the world's peoples) that any folk art has to art in general. It is usually too limited in its appeal, emotional nuances, intellectual intentions, etc. to be able to fit into the mainstream of world art. Of course, when a folk art does have enough breadth of intellectual, emotional, and psychological concern to make its presence important to those outside of its individual folk tradition, then it has succeeded in thrusting itself up into the area of serious art. And here, by "serious," I mean anything containing what Tillich calls an "Ultimate Concern" (God, Death; Life after—the concerns of art) and not as some people would have it, merely anything taught in a university. "Negro Literature" is only that; a literature of a particular folk. It is of value only to that particular folk and perhaps to a few scholars, and certain kinds of literary voyeurs. It should not make pretensions of being anything else.

Of course, utilizing the materials of a certain folk tradition to fashion a work of art (the artist, certainly, must work with what he has, and what is closest to him) can lead to wonderful results: Lorca, Villon, Joyce and Dublin, Faulkner, Ellison. But merely relying on the strength and vitality of that tradition, without attempting (either because one lacks talent or is insincere) to extend the beauty or meaning of that tradition into a "universal" statement cannot result in art. Bessie Smith is certainly in the folk tradition, but what she finally got to, through that tradition, is, as they say, "something else." Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, could almost be sung by Oedipus leaving Thebes. As Pound said of great literature, "language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree." That is art. A work that never leaves or points to some human reference outside a peculiar folk tradition is at best only folklore.

Ralph Ellison is a Negro writer. His novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award as the best American novel of 1952. It is among the best books written by an American in the last twenty years. The novel clearly deals with what is superficially a "Negro theme." Its characters are primarily Negroes, and its protagonist is a Negro. And although it is this "Negro theme" that gives the book its special twist, the theme is no more than a point of departure for Ellison. It is no more a "folk tale" than Faulkner's The Sound And The Fury. Ellison's horrifying portrait of a man faced with the loss of his identity through the weird swinishness of American society is probably made more incisive by its concentration on one segment of that society. Ellison uses the folk materials; jazz, blues, church songs, the southern heritage, the whole phenomena of Harlem. But he "charges them with meaning," extending the provincial into the universal. He makes art. Ellison, by utilizing the raw materials of his environment and the peculiar cultural heritage of the Negro, has not written a "Negro novel" but a novel. Ellison is a Negro writing literature and great literature at that.

To get back to Langston Hughes. Hughes and the "Harlem School" proposed (the credo was written around 1926 in The Nation) essentially to resist writing mere folklore. They were to become "full-fledged" artists; though bringing in the whole of the Negro's life. Jean Toomer's novel Cane succeeded; some of Cullen's poetry, and Langston Hughes's early verse. Toomer's is perhaps the greatest achievement. His Cane was the most significant work by a Negro up until Richard Wright's Native Son. Cullen's failure to produce great art is not reproachable. He just wasn't talented enough perhaps. Perhaps Langston Hughes is not talented enough, either. But there are the poems of his early books. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is a superb poem, and certainly there must be something else where that came from. And though he is never as good as a prose writer, Not without Laughter, his first novel, with all its faults, did have a certain poise and concern nowhere after so seriously approached. Some of the famous "Simple" pieces (started as a series of sketches for The Chicago Defender), at their best, contain a genuine humor; but most of them are crushed into mere half-cynical yelping (through a simulated laughter) at the almost mystical white oppressors. At any rate, Hughes has not lived up to his credo. Or perhaps the fault is that he has only lived up to a part of it. "To express our individual dark-skinned selves." Certainly, that is not the final stance of an artist. A writer must be concerned with more than just the color of his skin. Jesse B. Simple, colored man, has to live up to both sides of that title, the noun as well as the adjective.

Since this is a review of a particular book rather than a tract on the responsibilities of the Negro artist, as it must seem I have made it, I must mention the book, Tambourines to Glory. There's not much I can say about the book itself. Probably, if a book of similar literary worth were to be written by another author it would not be reviewed (probably, it would have never gotten published). But the Negro writer (especially Hughes, since he is so well known as such) raises certain peculiar questions that are not in the least "literary." I have tried to answer some of them. But the book is meaningless, awkward, and never gets past its horribly inept plot. In fact, were it not for, say, the frequent introduction of new characters within the book, it would be almost impossible to distinguish the novel, itself from the blurb summary on the jacket. "Laura Reed and Essie Belle Johnson, two attractive Harlem tenement women with time on their hands and no jobs, decide to start their own gospel church on a street corner. Laura wishes to make money. Essie honestly desires to help people." The characterizations don't get much past that.

Even as a folklorist Hughes leaves much to be desired. His use of Harlem slang is strained and rarely precise. When a Harlem con man "Big-Eye Buddy" is trying to make little Marietta (from the South), he says hiply . . . "Men don't start asking a sharp little chick like you what school you're in." "Sharp?" Marietta replies incredulously. Buddy says, "Stacked, solid, neat-all-reet, copasetic, baby!" It reeks of the Cab Calloway—Cotton Club—zoot suit era. No self-respecting young Harlemite hipster would be caught dead using such passé, "uncool" language today. As they say, "Man, that stuff went out with pegs." At least a folk artist ought to get the tradition of the folk straight.

But there are so many other faults in the very structure and technical aspect of the novel, as to make faults in the writer's own peculiar stylistic device superflous. None of the basic "novelistic devices" are used correctly. Any advance in the plot is merely stated, never worked into the general texture of the novel. By mentioning the landmarks of Harlem and its prominent persons, occasionally, and by having his characters use a "Negro" dialect to mouth continually old stock phrases of Negro dissatisfaction with white America, Hughes apparently hoped to at least create a little atmosphere and make a good folk yarn out of it. But he doesn't even succeed in doing that this time.

It's like a jazz musician who knows that if you play certain minor chords it sounds kind of bluesy, so he plays them over and over again; year in, year out. A kind of tired "instant funk." Certainly this kind of thing doesn't have anything much to do with jazz; just as Hughes's present novel doesn't really have anything to do with either literature per se, or, in its imperfect and shallow rendering, the folk tradition he has gotten so famous for interpreting.

Source: Le Roi Jones, "Tambourines to Glory," in The Jazz Review, Vol. 2, June 1959, pp. 33–34.


Bontemps, Arna, "How the Money Rolled In!" in New York Herald Tribune Books, December 7, 1958, p. 4.

Clarke, Marion Turner, "Selected New Books in Review: Fiction of Harlem, Ireland, Maine," in Baltimore Evening Sun, November 21, 1958, p. 28.

Gehman, Richard, "Free, Free Enterprise," in Saturday Review, Vol. 41, No. 47, November 22, 1958, p. 19.

Hughes, Langston, "Goodbye Christ," in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad, Knopf, pp. 166–67; originally published in Negro Worker, November–December 1932, p. 32.

—, Tambourines to Glory, in The Collected Works of Langston Hughes: The Novels, Vol. 4, edited by Dolan Hubbard, University of Missouri Press, 2001, pp. 211-325.

Jones, LeRoi, Review of Tambourines to Glory, in Jazz Review, Vol. 2, June 1959, p. 34.

Millstein, Gilbert, Review of Tambourines to Glory, in Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad Press, 1993, p. 39; originally published in the New York Times Book Review, November 23, 1958, p. 51.

Sullivan, Marty, "'Folk Tale' of Harlem is Praised," in Fort Wayne News Sentinel, November 22, 1958, p. 4.

Williams, Roland L., Jr., "Respecting the Folk," in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 24, Nos. 3–4. Summer 2001, p. 534.

Further Reading

Emanuel, James, Langston Hughes, Twayne, 1967.

The first book-length study of Hughes and his work, this volume offers a solid introduction to the writer's major themes, although it focuses on the poetry more than on the prose and mentions Tambourines to Glory only in passing. It includes a chronology of important dates and an annotated bibliography.

Hughes, Langston, and Milton Meltzer, A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, Crown, 1956.

Hughes wrote the text to accompany an extensive collection of photographs, cartoons, graphic art, and other illustrations accumulated by Meltzer. The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with the slave trade, and includes several illustrations from Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance.

Miller, R. Baxter, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks: A Reference Guide, G. K. Hall, 1978.

The half of this book concerning Hughes includes a critical overview that covers responses to all of Hughes's writings, as well as a comprehensive annotated listing of major reviews and criticism published between 1924 and 1977.

Ostrom, Hans, A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, 2002.

Ostrom explains that each entry in this alphabetically arranged work is intended for a general reader with no particular knowledge about Hughes or the times in which he lived. Included are entries for individual works, as well as for broader topics such as "Harlem" and "religion."

Rampersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes, 2 vols., Oxford University Press, 1986–1988.

This sweeping and thorough two-volume work is the definitive biography of Langston Hughes. It is also an insightful look at the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. Hughes's fascination with music is a thread that carries through the biography. Hughes's working and re-working the material that became Tambourines to Glory in both novel and play forms is detailed in the second volume.