So here I am in New York, and this morning had to decide how I was going to travel uptown. I was born and raised in this city, and have been riding subways since I was a child…but not today. As I was heading toward the subway station I began to think about recent events in London, and suddenly I was hailing a taxi cab. Tomorrow I’ll probably take the subway, ’cause I felt rather silly not doing so today, but in a way I was glad for the reminder because it is so easy to go about one’s business without thinking about the horrors taking place in other countries.
Thinking about all the people dying, and recalling the days and weeks following 9/11, made me think of Taps. It is perhaps the most famous of all bugle calls, and is comprised of just 24 notes. I don’t know for sure when I first heard that haunting melody. I keep thinking that it was probably at summer camp signaling ‘lights out’ – the original purpose of the call – or perhaps in an old war movie soundtrack, playing as darkness enveloped the barracks of the good guys. Fond memories aside, my first exposure was most likely while watching television coverage of John F. Kennedy’s funeral – I was barely eight years old. Over the last forty years, the American public has come to know Taps all too well. For many days following 9/11 we heard it several times a day, and now as soldiers and civilians in all corners of the world die at terrorist hands in political and religious wars, I only hope that we never become inured to the sadness that Taps evokes.
Taps, as we know it today, was first sounded in July of 1862 for the Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, under the command of Union General Daniel Butterfield. Its origins are much disputed, and the truth is confounded by verbal accounts that have grown into myth. Master Sgt. Jari A. Villanueva, a longstanding member of the United States Air Force Band and respected bugle historian, traces today’s Taps back to an earlier version of the call Tattoo used “to signal troops to prepare them for bedtime roll call.” In his comprehensive essay that covers the history and the mythology of Taps, Villanueva writes, “In the interest of historical accuracy, it should be noted that it is not General Butterfield who composed Taps, rather that he revised an earlier call into the present day bugle call we know as Taps.”
Other stories of Taps’ origin include a Union Army father finding the musical notes on a slip of paper in the pocket of a dead Confederate soldier…his own son. Villanueva has traced this tall tale back to a Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” story that was later spread by re-telling in an Ann Landers or Dear Abby column.
Villaneuva also explains the circumstances under which Taps was first used at a military funeral during the Peninsular Campaign in 1862. Captain Tidball, worried that a loud gun volley would alert the enemy nearby, ordered Taps to be played at the burial of a fallen soldier. “The custom, thus originated, was taken up throughout the Army of the Potomac, and finally confirmed by orders.” Taps can be heard as many as thirty times a day at Arlington National Cemetery. Villanueva, himself a bugler, says that this duty “is the military musician’s equivalent of ‘playing Carnegie Hall.’”
“Taps should be played by a lone bugler,” says Colonel Arnald D. Gabriel, Commander and Conductor of the United States Air Force Band from 1964 – 1985. “Some have tried to harmonize it, but it destroys the simplistic beauty of the lone bugler. The most heart tugging time to hear it is at Arlington Cemetery when a veteran is buried and there are no family members present, just the Chaplin, the honor guard and the pallbearers. To hear taps in that setting is gut-wrenching.”
Music is a powerful communicator.