Year
1958

W.C. Handy—the “Father of the Blues”—dies

“With all their differences, my forebears had one thing in common: if they had any musical talent, it remained buried.” So wrote William Christopher Handy in his autobiography in discussing the absence of music in his home life as a child. Born in northern Alabama in 1873, Handy was raised in a middle-class African-American family that intended for him a career in the church. To them and to his teachers, W.C. Handy wrote, “Becoming a musician would be like selling my soul to the devil.” It was a risk that the young Handy decided to take. He was internationally famous by the time he wrote his 1941 memoir, Father of the Blues, although “Stepfather” might have been a more accurate label for the role he played in bringing Blues into the musical mainstream. The significance of his role is not to be underestimated, however. W.C. Handy, one of the most important figures in 20th-century American popular music history, died in New York City on March 28, 1958.

While Handy’s teachers might not have considered a career in music to be respectable, they provided him with the tools that made his future work possible. Naturally blessed with a fantastic ear, Handy was drilled in formal musical notation as a schoolboy. “When I was no more than ten,” Hand wrote in Father of the Blues, I could catalogue almost any sound that came to my ears, using the tonic sol-fa system. I knew the whistle of each of the river boats on the Tennessee….Even the bellow of the bull became in my mind a musical note, and in later years I recorded this memory in the ‘Hooking cow Blues.'” The talent and the inclination to take the traditional black music he heard during his years as a traveling musician and capture it accurately in technically correct sheet music would be Handy’s great professional contribution. It not only made the music that came to be called “the Blues” playable by other professional musicians, but it also added the fundamental musical elements of the Blues into the vocabulary of professional song-composers. Jazz standards “The Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues”are the most famous of Handy’s own compositions, but his musical legacy can be heard in the works of composers as varied as George Gershwin and Keith Richards.

More than 25,000 mourners filled the streets around Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church for the funeral of W.C. Handy, who died at the age of 85 on this day in 1958.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Eisenhower dies

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States and one of the most highly regarded American generals of World War II, dies in Washington, D.C., at the age of 78.Born in Denison, Texas, in 1890, Eisenhower graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1915, ...read more

Spanish Civil War ends

In Spain, the Republican defenders of Madrid raise the white flag over the city, bringing to an end the bloody three-year Spanish Civil War.In 1931, Spanish King Alfonso XIII approved elections to decide the government of Spain, and voters overwhelmingly chose to abolish the ...read more

Land cleared for Ford’s Willow Run plant

On this day in 1941, workers start clearing trees from hundreds of acres of land near Ypsilanti, Michigan, some 30 miles west of Detroit, in preparation for the construction of the Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run plant, which will use Henry Ford’s mass-production technology to ...read more

Nuclear accident at Three Mile Island

At 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, the worst accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry begins when a pressure valve in the Unit-2 reactor at Three Mile Island fails to close. Cooling water, contaminated with radiation, drained from the open valve into adjoining ...read more

First American citizen killed during WWI

On March 28, 1915, the first American citizen is killed in the eight-month-old European conflict that would become known as the First World War. Leon Thrasher, a 31-year-old mining engineer and native of Massachusetts, drowned when a German submarine, the U-28, torpedoed the ...read more

Diem’s popular support questioned

A U.S. national intelligence estimate prepared for President John F. Kennedy declares that South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and the Republic of Vietnam are facing an extremely critical situation. As evidence, the reports cites that more than half of the rural region ...read more

American pacifists arrive in Haiphong

The Phoenix, a private U.S. yacht with eight American pacifists aboard, arrives in Haiphong, North Vietnam, with $10,000 worth of medical supplies for the North Vietnamese. The trip, financed by a Quaker group in Philadelphia, was made in defiance of a U.S. ban on American travel ...read more

Baltimore Colts move to Indianapolis

On this day in 1984, Bob Irsay (1923-1997), owner of the once-mighty Baltimore Colts, moves the team to Indianapolis. Without any sort of public announcement, Irsay hired movers to pack up the team’s offices in Owings Mills, Maryland, in the middle of the night, while the city of ...read more

Congress censures Jackson

On this day in 1834, President Andrew Jackson is censured by Congress for refusing to turn over documents. Jackson was the first president to suffer this formal disapproval from Congress. During his first term, Jackson decided to dismantle the Bank of the United States and find a ...read more

De Anza founds San Francisco

Juan Bautista de Anza, one of the great western pathfinders of the 18th century, arrives at the future site of San Francisco with 247 colonists.Though little known among Americans because of his Spanish origins, Anza’s accomplishments as a western trailblazer merit comparison ...read more

Mario Vargas Llosa, Peruvian novelist, is born

Peruvian novelist and unsuccessful presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa is born. Llosa, who built his fame as a writer on works ranging from novels to plays to critical essays, was educated in Bolivia, where he grandfather was Peruvian consul. He attended military school in ...read more

Fairbanks and Pickford marry

Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford marry on this day in 1920, just three and a half weeks after Pickford’s divorce from her first husband, actor Owen Moore. Pickford and Fairbanks had been business partners since the previous year, when they teamed up with ...read more

Reactor overheats at Three Mile Island

The most serious nuclear accident in United States history takes place at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on this day in 1979, when one of the reactors overheats. Fortunately, a catastrophic meltdown was averted and there were no deaths or direct ...read more

Funeral held for the man behind the guillotine

The funeral of Guillotin, the inventor and namesake of the infamous execution device, takes place outside of Paris, France. Guillotin had what he felt were the purest motives for inventing the guillotine and was deeply distressed at how his reputation had become besmirched in the ...read more

Battle of Glorieta Pass

On this day in 1862, Union forces stop the Confederate invasion of New Mexico Territory when they turn the Rebels back at Glorieta Pass.This action was part of the broader movement by the Confederates to capture New Mexico and other parts of the West. This would secure territory ...read more

Acheson-Lilienthal Report released

The State Department releases the so-called Acheson-Lilienthal Report, which outlines a plan for international control of atomic energy. The report represented an attempt by the United States to maintain its superiority in the field of atomic weapons while also trying to avoid a ...read more