Likely Stories: Tambourines to Glory by Langston Hughes

Mar 28, 2019

Interesting novel by the great African-American poet, Langston Hughes.


I’m Jim McKeown. Welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and Biographies.

Tambourines to Glory, is a novel I knew nothing about.  When I learned the author was Langston Hughes, I was puzzled.  I did not know he wrote a novel.

According to the jacket, “Langston Hughes, one of America’s leading authors and poets, has long been interested in the gospel church, and particularly in religious music in the gospel manner.  As a child he was often moved by the sermons of Negro ministers and the spirituals and syncopated songs of the gospel congregations.”  I immediately dropped a few other things I was reading to acquaint myself with Langston Hughes the novelist.

Mr. Hughes wrote, “Tambourines to Glory is an urban folk tale set against a back ground of colored independence, unorthodox churches which have sprung up all over Harlem in the last decade.  It is in no sense an attack on organized religion, or on cults as such, but is a fictional exposé of certain ways in which religion is misused in large city communities today by various types of unscrupulous leaders who might be called ‘gospel racketeers,’ praying upon the gullibility of simple people.”

Laura Reed and Essie Belle Johnson live in a tenement in Harlem.  They have no jobs and plenty of time to spare.  They decide to begin preaching on sidewalks to raise some money.  Hughes writes, “‘When the sap rises in the trees, it’s spring,’ said Laura.  ‘Babes and boys start holding conferences to which actions speak louder than words.  Aw, do it to me, lover!’ // ‘I wish you would not talk that way, Laura, and you supposed to be preparing yourself for the ministry.’ // ‘I’m a she-male minister,’ said Laura, ‘and there ain’t nothing in the Bible says male nor female shall not make love.  Fact is, Essie, the very first book is just full of begats, which runs from Genesis through to Tabulations.’ // ‘Revelations,’ said Essie.  I read the Bible when I were a child.’ // ‘Which were a long time ago,’ murmured Laura. // ‘Just because I’m a few years older than you,’ said Essie, ‘you don’t need to reflect on it.  But if we’re gonna start them meetings we been talking about, you ought to start reading up in the Bible’” (39).

Laura and Essie begin preaching, and slowly they gather followers.  In addition to their flock, some interesting characters join the church, Birdy Lee and Crow-For-Day, who have talents of their own.  Unfortunately, a snake slithers into the congregation.  Big-Eyed Buddy uses the church as a front for playing numbers.  Hughes, writes, “‘I saw you on the curb before you moved off the street into this church, and you certainly looked good to me’. // ‘I did not observe you in the services tonight, did I?’ asked Laura.  She went toward the switch to turn out the altar lights. // ‘No, I just wandered in after things was over (80).  You might think you already know what happens next, but I am fairly certain you will be surprised. 

Langston Hughes, poet, can also spin a tale with moments of laughter, and serious moments as well, Tambourines to Glory will have you thinking.  I can see the nodding heads in the pews.  5 stars.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and Happy reading!