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.