Historical Context

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The Great Migration
Between about 1890 and 1930, some two-anda- 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.

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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.

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.

Literary Style

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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 twosentence 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
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 kingsize 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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
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.

Compare and Contrast

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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 middleclass 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.

Media Adaptations

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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.

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