Powerhouse Annotated

A Digital Edition.

Fats Waller. New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Alan Fisher. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Fats Waller

Welty wrote “Powerhouse” after she attended a concert that Fats Waller gave in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, in 1940. Born in 1904, Waller was famous by the time he arrived in Jackson to perform at the city auditorium on May 8 of that year. He was also just three years away from his death, of pneumonia, at age thirty nine. In “Powerhouse” Welty captures both Waller’s brilliance and the mindset of the white Mississippi audience that tries to contain him within its own narrow bounds. “Powerhouse” Annotated makes legible the multimedia experience she has devised for her readers.

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Powerhouse is playing! Fats Waller played at the Jackson City Auditorium on May 8, 1940. Welty attended with her friend Seta Alexander (Eudora Welty 66).

He’s here on tour from the city—“Powerhouse and His Keyboard”—“Powerhouse and His Tasmanians”—think of the things he calls himself! The name associates the supporting band with a remote geography and an aboriginal people. There’s no one in the world like him. You can’t tell what he is. “Nigger man”? In Eudora Welty: A Biography, Marrs writes, “The story’s point of view, as Eudora later noted, ‘is floating around somewhere in the concert hall—it belongs to the “we” of the audience’” (66-67). The story foregrounds the racism of this audience. —he looks more Asiatic, monkey, Jewish, Babylonian, Peruvian, fanatic, devil. By association with the tower, “Babylonian” acquires, in this context, the connotation “huge, gigantic” (OED). “Fanatic” carries the resonance of its etymon, the Latin fanum, “temple.” The white audience others the African-American musician, who performs with a zeal that overawes them. He has pale gray eyes, heavy lids, maybe horny like a lizard’s, but big glowing eyes when they’re open. He has African feet of the greatest size, stomping, both together, on each side of the pedals. He’s not coal black—beverage colored—looks like a preacher when his mouth is shut, but then it opens—vast and obscene. And his mouth is going every minute: like a monkey’s when it looks for something. Improvising, coming on a light and childish melody—smooch—he loves it with his mouth.

Is it possible that he could be this! When you have him there performing for you, that’s what you feel. You [end page 253] know people on a stage—and people of a darker race—so likely to be marvelous, frightening.

This is a white dance. Powerhouse is not a show-off like the Harlem boys, not drunk, not crazy—he’s in a trance; he’s a person of joy, a fanatic. He listens as much as he performs, a look of hideous, powerful rapture on his face. Big arched eyebrows that never stop traveling, like a Jew’s—wandering-Jew eyebrows. An instance of narratorial improvisation: the eyebrows that “never stop traveling” conjure the simile, which also associates Powerhouse with the doomed wanderer of Christian myth. When he plays he beats down piano and seat and wears them away. He is in motion every moment—what could be more obscene? There he is with his great head, fat stomach, and little round piston legs, and long yellow-sectioned strong big fingers, at rest about the size of bananas. Of course you know how he sounds—you’ve heard him on records—but still you need to see him. He’s going all the time, like skating around the skating rink or rowing a boat. It makes everybody crowd around, here in this shadowless steel-trussed hall with the rose-like posters of Nelson Eddy “One of the most prominent stage and screen vocalists of his generation,” Eddy first “sang to a small Jackson crowd in 1932.” He returned in March 1941 to far greater fanfare. The Clarion-Ledger notes that, as of January 26, “one third of the city auditorium [was] already sold out” (“Nelson Eddy Coming Back Here,” Clarion-Ledger, January 26, 1941: 20). and the testimonial for the mind-reading horse According to the Jackson Daily News, the Con T. Kennedy Shows came to Jackson in March 1920. Among the attractions noted are “the Essie Fay society horses and Wild West exhibition combined. This is the largest exhibition of its kind traveling throughout the country and is the only horse show in existence that features a mind reading horse” (“Kennedy Shows All of Meritorious Character,” Jackson Daily News, February 29, 1920: 5) in handwriting magnified five hundred times. Then all quietly he lays his finger on a key with the promise and serenity of a sibyl touching the book. “One or other of certain women of antiquity who were reputed to possess powers of prophecy and divination”(OED).

Powerhouse is so monstrous he sends everybody into oblivion. When any group, any performers, come to town, don’t people always come out and hover near, leaning inward about them, to learn what it is? What is it? Listen. Remember how it was with the acrobats. Watch them carefully, hear the least word, especially what they say to one another, in another language—don’t let them escape you; it’s the only time for hallucination, [end page 254] the last time. They can’t stay. They’ll be somewhere else this time tomorrow. Waller’s itinerary for the spring and summer of 1940 included performances at Club Brownie in Fort Lauderdale, FL, on March 30; Manhattan Casino in St. Petersburg, FL, on April 1; Jackson on May 8; the Cedar Lane Club in Opelousas, LA, on May 18; the Carlsbad Armory in Carlsbad, NM, on May 24; Liberty Hall in El Paso, TX, on May 25; Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland, CA, on June 15; and the Coconut Grove in Salt Lake City on June 24.

Powerhouse has as much as possible done by signals. Everybody, laughing as if to hide a weakness, will sooner or later hand him up a written request. Powerhouse reads each one, studying with a secret face: that is the face which looks like a mask—anybody’s; there is a moment when he makes a decision. Then a light slides under his eyelids, and he says, “92!” or some combination of figures—never a name. Before a number the band is all frantic, misbehaving, pushing, like children in a schoolroom, and he is the teacher getting silence. His hands over the keys, he says sternly, “You-all ready? You-all ready to do some serious walking?”—waits—then, STAMP. Quiet. STAMP, for the second time. This is absolute. Then a set of rhythmic kicks against the floor to communicate the tempo. Then, O Lord! say the distended eyes from beyond the boundary of the trumpets, Hello and good-by, and they are all down the first note like a waterfall.

This note marks the end of any known discipline. Powerhouse seems to abandon them all—he himself seems lost—down in the song, yelling up like somebody in a whirlpool—not guiding them—hailing them only. But he knows, really. He cries out, but he must know exactly. “Mercy!…What I say!…Yeah!” And then drifting, listening—“Where that skin beater?”—wanting drums, and starting up and pouring it out in the greatest delight and brutality. On the sweet pieces such a leer for everybody! He looks down so benevolently upon all our [end page 255] faces and whispers the lyrics to us. And if you could hear him at this moment on “Marie, the Dawn is Breaking” “Marie, the Dawn is Breaking”! Written by Irving Berlin for the film The Awakening. No original copy of this song exists, but a recording by The Troubadours in 1928 became popular amongst white audiences. He’s going up the keyboard with a few fingers in some very derogatory triplet-routine, he gets higher and higher, and then he looks over the end of the piano, as if over a cliff. But not in a show-off way—the song makes him do it.

He loves the way they all play, too—all those next to him. The far section of the band is all studious, wearing glasses, every one—they don’t count. Only those playing around Powerhouse are the real ones. He has a bass fiddler from Vicksburg, black as pitch, named Valentine, who plays with his eyes shut and talking to himself, very young: Powerhouse has to keep encouraging him. “Go on, go on, give it up, bring it on out there!” When you heard him like that on records, did you know he was really pleading?

He calls Valentine out to take a solo.

“What you going to play?” Powerhouse looks out kindly from behind the piano; he opens his mouth and shows his tongue, listening.
Valentine looks down, drawing against his instrument, and says without a lip movement, “Honeysuckle Rose” “‘Honeysuckle Rose.’” Written by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf in 1929 for an off-broadway African American revue called “Load of Coal,” “Honeysuckle Rose” is named after a flower often also called the African Violet.

He has a clarinet player named Little Brother, and loves to listen to anything he does. He’ll smile and say, “Beautiful!” Little Brother takes a step forward when he plays and stands at the very front, with the whites of his eyes like fishes swimming. Once when he played a low note, Powerhouse muttered in dirty praise, “He went clear downstairs to get that one!”

After a long time, he holds up the number of fingers to [end page 256] tell the band how many choruses still to go—usually five. He keeps his directions down to signals.

It’s a bad night outside. It’s a white dance, and nobody dances, except a few straggling jitterbugs and two elderly couples. Everybody just stands around the band and watches Powerhouse. Sometimes they steal glances at one another, as if to say, Of course, you know how it is with them—Negroes—band leaders—they would play the same way, giving all they’ve got, for an audience of one…. When somebody, no matter who, gives everything, it makes people feel ashamed for him.

Late at night they play the one waltz they will ever consent to play—by request, “Pagan Love Song” “Pagan Love Song.” Written in 1929 for the MGM film The Pagan, this song doesn’t fit Powerhouse’s repertoire. No record exists that Fats Waller recorded this song. Powerhouse’s head rolls and sinks like a weight between his waving shoulders. He groans, and his fingers drag into the keys heavily, holding on to the notes, retrieving. It is a sad song.

“You know what happened to me?” says Powerhouse.

Valentine hums a response, dreaming at the bass.

“I got a telegram my wife is dead,” says Powerhouse, with wandering fingers.


His mouth gathers and forms a barbarous O while his fingers walk up straight, unwillingly, three octaves.

“Gypsy? Why how come her to die, didn’t you just phone her up in the night last night long distance?”

“Telegram say—here the words: Your wife is dead.” He puts 4/4 over the 3/4. Also called a hemiola, which occurs when a composer switches temporarily from one time signature to another.

“Not but four words?” This is the drummer, an unpopular boy named Scoot, a disbelieving maniac. [end page 257]

Powerhouse is shaking his vast cheeks. “What the hell was she trying to do? What was she up to?”

“What name has it got signed, if you got a telegram?” Scoot is spitting away with those wire brushes.

Little Brother, the clarinet player, who cannot now speak, glares and tilts back.

“Uranus Knockwood is the name signed.” Powerhouse lifts his eyes open. “Ever heard of him?” A bubble shoots out on his lip like a plate on a counter.

Valentine is beating slowly on with his palm and scratching the strings with his long blue nails. He is fond of a waltz, Powerhouse interrupts him.

“I don’t know him. Don’t know who he is.” Valentine shakes his head with the closed eyes.

“Say it agin.”

“Uranus Knockwood.”

“That ain’t Lenox Avenue.” Harlem’s main thoroughfare, the center of jazz culture in the 1930s and 1940s.

“It ain’t Broadway.”

“Ain’t ever seen it wrote out in any print, even for horse racing.”

“Hell, that’s on a star, boy, ain’t it?” Crash of the cymbals.

“What the hell was she up to?” Powerhouse shudders. “Tell me, tell me, tell me.” He makes triplets, and begins a new chorus. He holds three fingers up.

“You say you got a telegram.” This is Valentine, patient and sleepy, beginning again.

Powerhouse is elaborate. “Yas, the time I go out, go way downstairs along a long cor-ri-dor to where they puts us; coming back along the cor-ri-dor: steps out and hands me a telegram: Your wife is dead.” [end page 258]

“Gypsy?” The drummer like a spider over his drums.

“Aaaaaaaaa!” shouts Powerhouse, flinging out both powerful arms for three whole beats to flex his muscles, then kneading a dough of bass notes. His eyes glitter. He plays the piano like a drum sometimes—why not?

“Gypsy? Such a dancer?”

“Why you don’t hear it straight from your agent? Why it ain’t come from headquarters? What you been doing, getting telegrams in the corridor, signed nobody?”

They all laugh. End of that chorus.

“What time is it?” Powerhouse calls. “What the hell place is this? Where is my watch and chain?”

“I hang it on you,” whimpers Valentine. “It still there.”

There it rides on Powerhouse’s great stomach, down where he can never see it.

“Sure did hear some clock striking twelve while ago. Must be midnight.”

“It going to be intermission,” Powerhouse declares, lifting up his finger with the signet ring.

He draws the chorus to an end. He pulls a big Northern hotel towel out of the deep pocket in his vast, special-cut tux pants and pushes his forehead into it. Outside the Jim Crow South, Powerhouse can stay at a hotel.
“If she went and killed herself!” he says with a hidden face. “If she up and jumped out that window!” He gets to his feet, turning vaguely, wearing the towel on his head.

“Ha, ha!”

“Sheik, sheik!” George Melford’s 1921 silent film The Sheik, an adaptation of the novel by Edith Maude Hull, expanded the word’s meaning to include, “A type of a strong, romantic lover; a lady-killer” (OED). Welty likely had in mind Harry B. Smith and Francis Wheeler’s 1921 hit song, “The Sheik of Araby,” which was based on this film. Waller & His Rhythm released a recording of “The Sheik of Araby” in 1939.

“She wouldn’t do that.” Little Brother sets down his clarinet like a precious vase, and speaks. He still looks like an East Indian queen, implacable, divine, and full of [end page 259] snakes. “You ain’t going to expect people doing what they says over long distance.”

“Come on!” roars Powerhouse. He is already at the back door, he has pulled it wide open, and with a wild, gathered-up face is smelling the terrible night.

Powerhouse, Valentine, Scoot and Little Brother step outside into the drenching rain.

“Well, they emptying buckets,” says Powerhouse in a mollified voice. On the street he holds his hands out and turns up the blanched palms like sieves.

A hundred dark, ragged, silent, delighted Negroes have come around from under the eaves of the hall, and follow wherever they go.

“Watch out Little Brother don’t shrink,” says Powerhouse. “You just the right size now, clarinet don’t suck you in. You got a dry throat, Little Brother, you in the desert?” He reaches into the pocket and pulls out a paper of mints. “Now hold ‘em in your mouth—don’t chew ‘em. I don’t carry around nothing without limit.”

“Go in that joint and have beer,” says Scoot, who walks ahead.

“Beer? Beer? You know what beer is? What do they say is beer? What’s beer? Where I been?”

“Down yonder where it say World Café—that do?” They are in Negrotown now. The Clarion-Ledger for July 21, 1941, notes a Hello World Café at the corner of Blair and Cohea Streets in downtown Jackson.

Valentine patters over and holds open a screen door warped like a sea shell, bitter in the wet, and they walk in, stained darker with the rain and leaving footprints. Inside, sheltered dry smells stand like screens around a table covered with a red-checkered cloth, in the center [end page 260] of which flies hang onto an obelisk-shaped ketchup bottle. The midnight walls are checkered again with admonishing “Not Responsible” signs and black-figured, smoky calendars. It is a waiting, silent, limp room. There is a burned-out-looking nickelodeon and right beside it a long-necked wall instrument labeled “Business Phone, Don’t Keep Talking.” Circled phone numbers are written up everywhere. There is a worn-out peacock feather hanging by a thread to an old, thin, pink, exposed light bulb, where it slowly turns around and around, whoever breathes.

A waitress watches.

“Come here, living statue, and get all this big order of beer we fixing to give.”

“Never seen you before anywhere.” The waitress moves and comes forward and slowly shows little gold leaves and tendrils over her teeth. She shoves up her shoulders and breasts. “How I going to know who you might be? Robbers? Coming in out of the black of night right at midnight, setting down so big at my table?”

“Boogers,” says Powerhouse, his eyes opening lazily as in a cave.

The girl screams delicately with pleasure. O Lord, she likes talk and scares.

“Where you going to find enough beer to put out on this here table?”

She runs to the kitchen with bent elbows and sliding steps.

“Here’s a million nickels,” says Powerhouse, pulling his hand out of his pocket and sprinkling coins out, all but the last one, which he makes vanish like a magician. [end page 261]

Valentine and Scoot take the money over to the nickelodeon, which looks as battered as a slot machine, and read all the names of the records out loud. A juke-box. The OED identifies the earliest usage of nickelodeon in this sense in 1938.

“Whose “Tuxedo Junction” (Hawkins) ‘Tuxedo Junction’?” asks Powerhouse. Written in 1939 by Erskine Hawkins, this piece was appropriated by Glenn Miller, and Miller’s cover became immensely popular, with little credit given to the original Hawkins recording.

“Tuxedo Junction” (Miller) “You know whose.” Compare Miller’s cover with Hawkins’s original. “Nickelodeon, I request you please to play “Empty Bed Blues” ‘Empty Bed Blues’ and let Bessie Smith sing.” Written by Bessie Smith in 1928. Smith’s speaker laments the loss of a lover.

Silence: they hold it like a measure.

“Bring me all those nickels on back here,” says Powerhouse. “Look at that! What you tell me the name of this place?”

“White dance, week night, raining, Alligator, Mississippi, long ways from home.” The name of a small town in the Mississippi Delta. Welty adopts it for her fictionalized version of Jackson.


“Sent for You Yesterday and Here You Come Today” “Sent for You Yesterday and Here You Come Today” plays. Written by Count Basie in 1938.

The waitress, setting the tray of beer down on a back table, comes up taut and apprehensive as a hen. “Says in the kitchen, back there putting their eyes to little hole peeping out, that you is Mr Powerhouse. . . . They knows from a picture they seen.”

“They seeing right tonight, that is him,” says Little Brother.

“You him?”

“That is him in the flesh,” says Scoot.

“Does you wish to touch him?” asks Valentine. “Because he don’t bite.”

“You passing through?”

“Now you got everything right.”

She waits like a drop, hands languishing together in front. [end page 262]

“Little-Bit, ain’t you going to bring the beer?”

She brings it, and goes behind the cash register and smiles, turning different ways. The little fillet of gold in her mouth is gleaming.

“The Mississippi River’s here,” she says once.

Now all the watching Negroes press in gently and bright-eyed through the door, as many as can get in. One is a little boy in a straw sombrero which has been coated with aluminum paint all over.

Powerhouse, Valentine, Scoot and Little Brother drink beer, and their eyelids come together like curtains. The wall and the rain and the humble beautiful waitress waiting on them and the other Negroes watching enclose them.

“Listen!” whispers Powerhouse, looking into the ketchup bottle and slowly spreading his performer’s hands over the damp, wrinkling cloth with the red squares. “Listen how it is. My wife gets missing me. Gypsy. She goes to the window. She looks out and sees you know what. Street. Sign saying Hotel. People walking. Somebody looks up. Old man. She looks down, out the window. Well? . . .Ssssst! Plooey! What she do? Jump out and bust her brains all over the world.”

He opens his eyes.

“That’s it,” agrees Valentine. “You gets a telegram.”

“Sure she misses you,” Little Brother adds.

“No, it’s night time.” How softly he tells them! “Sure. It’s the night time. She say, What do I hear? Footsteps walking up the hall? That him? Footsteps go on off. It’s not me. I’m in Alligator, Mississippi, she’s crazy. Shaking all over. Listens till her ears and all grow out like [end page 263] old music-box horns but still she can’t hear a thing. She says, All right! I’ll jump out the window then. Got on her nightgown. I know that nightgown, and her thinking there. Says, Ho hum, all right, and jumps out the window. Is she mad at me! Is she crazy! She don’t leave nothing behind her!”

“Ya! Ha!”

“Brains and insides everywhere, Lord, Lord.”

All the watching Negroes stir in their delight, and to their higher delight he says affectionately, “Listen! Rats in here.”

“That must be the way, boss.”

“Only, naw, Powerhouse, that ain’t true. That sound too bad.”

“Does? I even know who finds her,” cries Powerhouse. “That no-good pussyfooted crooning creeper, that creeper that follow around after me, coming up like weeds behind me, following around after me everything I do and messing around on the trail I leave. Bets my numbers, sings my songs, gets close to my agent like a Betsy-bug; when I going out he just coming in. I got him now! I got my eye on him.”

“Know who he is?”

“Why it’s that old Uranus Knockwood!”

“Ya! Ha!”

“Yeah, and he coming now, he going to find Gypsy. There he is, coming around that corner, and Gypsy kadoodling down, oh-oh, watch out! Ssssst! Plooey! See, there she is in her little old nightgown, and her insides and brains all scattered round.”

A sigh fills the room. [end page 264]

“Hush about her brains. Hush about her insides.”

“Ya! Ha! You talking about her brains and insides—old Uranus Knockwood,” says Powerhouse, “look down and say Jesus! He say, Look here what I’m walking round in!”

They all burst into halloos of laughter. Powerhouse’s face looks like a big hot iron stove.

“Why, he picks her up and carries her off!” he says.

“Ya! Ha!”

“Carries her back around the corner. . . .”

“Oh, Powerhouse!”

“You know him.”

“Uranus Knockwood!”


“He take our wives when we gone!”

“He come in when we goes out!”


“He go out when we comes in!”


“He’s standing behind the door!”

“Old Uranus Knockwood.”

“You know him.”

“Middle-size man.”

“Wears a hat.”

“That’s him.”

Everybody in the room moans with pleasure. The little boy in the fine silver hat opens a paper and divides out a jelly roll among his followers.

And out of the breathless ring somebody moves forward like a slave, leading a great logy Negro with bursting eyes, and says, “This here is Sugar-Stick Thompson, [end page 265] that dove down to the bottom of July Creek and pulled up all those drownded white people fall out of a boat. Last summer, pulled up fourteen.”

“Hello,” says Powerhouse, turning and looking around at them all with his great daring face until they nearly suffocate.

Sugar-Stick, their instrument, cannot speak; he can only look back at the others.

“Can’t even swim. Done it by holding his breath,” says the fellow with the hero.

Powerhouse looks at him seekingly.

“I his half brother,” the fellow puts in.

They step back.

“Gypsy say,” Powerhouse rumbles gently again, looking at them, “ ‘What is the use? I’m gonna jump out far—so far. . . .’ Ssssst—!”

“Don’t, boss, don’t do it agin,” says Little Brother.

“It’s awful,” says the waitress. “I hates that Mr Knockwoods. All that the truth?”

“Want to see the telegram I got from him?” Powerhouse’s hand goes to the vast pocket.

“Now wait, now wait, boss.” They all watch him.

“It must be the real truth,” says the waitress, sucking in her lower lip, her luminous eyes turning sadly, seeking the windows.

“No, babe, it ain’t the truth.” His eyebrows fly up, and he begins to whisper to her out of his vast oven mouth. His hand stays in his pocket. “Truth is something worse, I ain’t said what, yet. It’s something hasn’t come to me, but I ain’t saying it won’t. And when it does, then want me to tell you?” He sniffs all at once, his eyes come open [end page 266] and turn up, almost too far. He is dreamily smiling.

“Don’t, boss, don’t, Powerhouse!”

“Oh!” the waitress screams.

“Go on git out of here!” bellows Powerhouse, taking his hand out of his pocket and clapping after her red dress.

The ring of watchers breaks and falls away.

“Look at that! Intermission is up,” says Powerhouse.

He folds money under a glass, and after they go out, Valentine leans back in and drops a nickel in the nickelodeon behind them, and it lights up and begins to play “The Goona Goo” “The Goona Goo.” The feather dangles still. Written by Tommy Dorsey. Fewer recordings of this piece are available.

“Take a telegram!” Powerhouse shouts suddenly up into the rain over the street. “Take a answer. Now what was that name?”

They get a little tired.

“Uranus Knockwood.”

“You ought to know.”

“Yas? Spell it to me.”

They spell it all the ways it could be spelled. It puts them in a wonderful humor.

“Here’s the answer. I got it right here. ‘What in the hell you talking about? Don’t make any different: I gotcha.’ Name signed: Powerhouse.”

“That going to reach him, Powerhouse?” Valentine speaks in a maternal voice.

“Yas, yas.”

All hushing, following him up the dark street at a distance, like old rained-on black ghosts, the Negroes are afraid they will die laughing. [end page 267]

Powerhouse throws back his vast head into the steaming rain, and a look of hopeful desire seems to blow somehow like a vapor from his own dilated nostrils over his face and bring a mist to his eyes.

“Reach him and come out the other side.”

“That’s it, Powerhouse, that’s it. You got him now.”

Powerhouse lets out a long sigh.

“But ain’t you going back there to call up Gypsy long distance, the way you did last night in that other place? I seen a telephone. . . . Just to see if she there at home?”

There is a measure of silence. That is one crazy drummer that’s going to get his neck broken some day.

“No,” growls Powerhouse. “No! How many thousand times tonight I got to say No?”

He holds up his arm in the rain.

“You sure-enough unroll your voice some night, it about reach up yonder to her,” says Little Brother, dismayed.

They go on up the street, shaking the rain off and on them like birds.

Back in the dance hall, they play “San” (99). No recording of this piece appears to exist.  The jitterbugs start up like windmills stationed over the floor, and in their orbits—one circle, another, a long stretch and a zigzag—dance the elderly couples with old smoothness, undisturbed and stately.

When Powerhouse first came back from intermission, no doubt full of beer, they said, he got the band tuned up again in his own way. He didn’t strike the piano keys for pitch—he simply opened his mouth and gave falsetto howls—in A, D, and so on—they tuned by him. Then he [end page 268] took hold of the piano, as if he saw it for the first time in his life, and tested it for strength, hit it down in the bass, played an octave with his elbow, lifted the top, looked inside, and leaned against it with all his might. He sat down and played it for a few minutes with outrageous force and got it under his power—a bass deep and coarse as a sea net—then produced something glimmering and fragile, and smiled. And who could ever remember any of the things he says? They are just inspired remarks that roll out of his mouth like smoke.

They’ve requested “Somebody Loves Me” “Somebody Loves Me,” and he’s already done twelve or fourteen choruses, piling them up nobody knows how, and it will be a wonder if he ever gets through. Composed by George Gershwin for George White’s Scandals of 1924. Now and then he calls and shouts, “‘Somebody loves me! Somebody loves me, I wonder who!’” His mouth gets to be nothing but a volcano. “I wonder who!”

“Maybe. . .” He uses all his right hand on a trill.

“Maybe. . .” He pulls back his spread fingers, and looks out upon the place where he is. A vast, impersonal and yet furious grimace transfigures his wet face.

“. . .Maybe it’s you!” [end page 269]

Description and Commentary

Copy Text

Document: A Curtain of Green

Author: Eudora Welty

Date of Publication: 1941

Publisher: Doubleday, Doran, and Company

Edition: 1st

Location: Millsaps-Wilson Library, Jackson, MS

Textual History

The work “Powerhouse” exists in three main published texts, each realized in one or more instances of print: the text that appeared in the June 1941 issue of The Atlantic Monthly; the text that appeared in Welty’s first collection of stories, A Curtain of Green, which also belongs to 1941; and the text that appeared in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty in 1980. Although only a handful of variants exists among the three texts, these variants expose the compositional history as well as the historical contexts in which Welty produced and reproduced the story. This digital edition follows Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays & Memoir (1998) in its choice of A Curtain of Green as the earliest fully authorized text. At completion, this project will present transcriptions of all three texts as well as selected images from relevant print materials.

Historical Context

Written immediately after Eudora Welty attended a Fats Waller concert in her hometown of Jackson, MS, in May of 1940,“Powerhouse” portrays life in Jim Crow Mississippi. That August, Welty read the story at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Conference staff for that year included Robert Frost, Louis Untermeyer, Edith Mirrielees, Wallace Stegner, John Marquand, and fellow Mississippian Hershel Brickell (Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference 2-5). According to Marrs, Katherine Ann Porter also spent time at the conference, and Carson McCullers was among the attendees. “Porter’s support notwithstanding,” Marrs writes, “‘Powerhouse’ was unsympathetically received at Bread Loaf” (Eudora Welty: A Biography 66). What this collection of luminaries (for the most part) missed, later readers found: “Powerhouse” has become one of Welty’s most beloved stories.

The Atlantic accepted “Powerhouse,” with revisions, in December, 1940. The original version ends with Powerhouse, modeled on Waller, singing Waller’s 1939 cover, “Hold Tight, I Want Some Seafood Mama.” Worried this allusion would shock readers, The Atlantic asked her to change the song. Welty found inspiration in this constraint, landing on the popular Gershwin tune, “Somebody Loves Me.” As many critics have noted, the new ending underscores the dynamic between performer and audience, which by extension includes readers of the story. In Jim Crow Mississippi even a false report of cross-racial attraction could cost a Black child his life. From this perspective, the idea of Powerhouse singing “Somebody Loves Me” at a “white dance” in Jackson contains a powerful irony. The Atlantic introduced other, smaller changes as well, some of which in effect bowdlerized the story’s exposure of racism (see Benzel, below, for a list of variants). Welty restored some of her original choices when she published the story in A Curtain of Green (1941), but she kept the revised ending.

In April 1963, as part of the Southern Literary Festival, Welty read “Powerhouse” to an integrated audience at Millsaps College, just blocks from her own home. In doing so, Marrs observes, she “took a considerable risk”: “the narrative voice located in the story’s white racist audience might have offended black listeners at Millsaps, even as the author’s clear identification of Powerhouse as representative of artists like herself might have offended whites” (Eudora Welty: A Biography 300). Outside the auditorium, she faced other risks. The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency, kept tabs on white Mississippians known to support the Civil Rights Movement. And only two months later a white terrorist would gun down Civil Rights activist and leader Medgar Evers in his own driveway. At a time of fear, violence, and surveillance, Welty might well have kept her head down. Instead she took a public stance. In “Powerhouse” she offers a portrait of a Black artist who knows how to play to and with the expectations of a white audience, who performs with defiant joy in a place whose customs, laws, and policies devalued Black lives. Reading the story​ on this occasion, to this audience, Welty put herself on the line for values she believed in.


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Benzel, Michael A. “Textual Variants in ‘Powerhouse.’” Eudora Welty Newsletter, vol. 11, no. 1, 1987, pp. 1-6. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43949315. Accessed 20 Jan. 2022.

Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Middlebury College Bulletin, vol. XXXIV, no. 9. Middlebury College, May 1940.

Ford, Sarah. “Serious Daring in Eudora Welty’s ‘Powerhouse’ and ‘Where Is the Voice Coming From?’” Southern Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 3, 2014, pp. 25-37.

“Kennedy Shows Here, Despite Rail Wreck.” Jackson Daily News, 3 Mar. 1920. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/194316561/. Accessed 20 Jan. 2022.

Mark, Rebecca. “For Crying Out Loud, or ‘The Truth Is Something Worse, I Ain’t Said Yet.’” New Essays on Eudora Welty, Class, and Race, edited by Harriett Pollack, UP of Mississippi, 2019, pp. 117-32.

Marrs, Suzanne. Eudora Welty: A Biography. Harcourt, 2005.

—. “Eudora Welty: The Liberal Imagination and Mississippi Politics.” The Mississippi Quarterly, supplement, 2009, pp. 5-11. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26477303. Accessed 30 Mar. 2022.

—. One Writer’s Imagination. Louisiana State UP, 2002.

McHaney, Thomas L. “The Saturday Night Function Beats the Sunday Morning Service: Welty’s ‘Powerhouse.’” Eudora Welty and the Poetics of the Body, Études Faulknériennes, edited by Géraldine Chouard, Danièle Pitavy-Souques, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2005, pp. 93-99.

“The Moose Carnival.” The Lincoln Daily Star, 3 June 1915, p. 8. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/40586078/. Accessed 20 Jan. 2022.

“Nelson Eddy Coming Back Here.” Clarion-Ledger, 26 Jan. 1941, p. 20. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/203078873/. Accessed 22 Jan. 2022.

Polk, Noel. Eudora Welty: A Bibliography of Her Work. UP of Mississippi, 1994.

Pollack, Harriet. “Words Between Strangers: On Welty, Her Style, and Her Audience.” Welty: A Life in Literature, edited by Albert J. Devlin, UP of Mississippi, pp. 54-81.

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Wanser, Jeff. “Erskine Hawkins.” Encyclopedia of Alabama, http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1365. Accessed 20 Jan. 2022.

Editor: Michael Pickard
Welty Fellows: Caroline Daniels (2020), Jesse Downing (2020), Donovan Johnson (2019), Lauren Ladner (2021), Morgan Moss (2020), Rae Switzer (2021), Macy Weaver (2024).