Music in History—Blowing Taps
by Jack Hayford
I played trumpet in junior high and high school band. I wasn't very good.
But there were a few things I could play pretty well. The historic "Lights Out" bugle call "Taps" was one of them.
I remember our band teacher Ms. Jackson, the week before our local Memorial Day parade, taking the trumpet section aside on the football field and one by one auditioning us for the following Monday. There were to be two memorial services on the parade route so she needed the four best of the group -- two players were needed at each stop as we were to perform a traditional "call and answer" version of "Taps." (After the first "Taps" is played at the memorial, a second "echoes" it from a distance.)
I nailed it at the audition and was one of the four chosen to perform. That is not the end of my story, it gets more interesting. But I digress to talk about the song and its history.
"Of all the military bugle calls, none is so easily recognized or more apt to render emotion than the call 'Taps.' The melody is both eloquent and haunting and the history of its origin is interesting and somewhat clouded in controversy. In the British Army, a similar call known as 'Last Post' has been sounded over soldiers' graves since 1885, but the use of 'Taps' is unique with the United States military, since the call is sounded at funerals, wreath-laying and memorial services.
"'Taps' began as a revision to the signal for Extinguish Lights('Lights Out') at the end of the day. Up until the Civil War, the infantry call for Extinguish Lights was the one set down in Silas Casey's (1801-1882) Tactics, which had been borrowed from the French. The music for Taps was adapted by Union General Daniel Butterfield for his brigade (Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac) in July, 1862.
"Daniel Adams Butterfield (31 October 1831-17 July 1901) was born in Utica, New York and graduated from Union College at Schenectady. He was the eastern superintendent of the American Express Company in New York when the Civil War broke out. Despite his lack of military experience, he rose quickly in rank. A Colonel in the 12th Regiment of the New York State Militia, he was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of a brigade of the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The 12th served in the Shenandoah Valley during the the Bull Run Campaign. During the Peninsular Campaign Butterfield served prominently when during the Battle of Gaines Mill, despite an injury, he seized the colors of the 83rd Pennsylvania and rallied the regiment at a critical time in the battle. Years later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for that act of heroism.
"As the story goes, General Butterfield was not pleased with the call for 'Extinguish Lights' feeling that the call was too formal to signal the days end and with the help of the brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, wrote 'Taps' to honor his men while in camp at Harrison's Landing, Virginia, following the Seven Day's battle. These battles took place during the Peninsular Campaign of 1862. The call, sounded that night in July, 1862, soon spread to other units of the Union Army and was even used by the Confederates. 'Taps' was made an official bugle call after the war." —Jari A. Villanueva
Back to my story. When I say I "nailed it," that's really not saying much. "Taps," as noted above, is a bugle call. Traditional bugles don't have valves (although there are "keyed bugles" which can play a complete chromatic scale) and produce only the notes of a C triad, C-E-G. (There are bugles that can also play in the key of F.)
My point is that "Taps" is a very simple song. Rendering it perfectly is not difficult with a little bit of lip and concentration. Here is the music to "Taps."
Having said that it's easy to play and that I routinely played it well, this particular Memorial Day tribute should have been an uneventful event, if you will.
But something went awry on my first performace of the day. I was doing the "answer" to the bugler at the memorial site. I was about thirty yards away in a little park, hidden from the observers. It was cold, I hadn't practiced in days and well, I kind of "blew it." I hit the high G, the highest note in the song...just briefly. Then lost it and cracked down to the G an octave lower. A clear gaffe.
I held it together and finished the song. Ms. Jackson didn't say anything, just looked at me funny when I got back. My section mate Doug said, "What happened? Sounded like a car horn blew in the middle of it." I said, "I blew it," but Doug had given me my excuse should I need it..."car horn blew."
Doug knew I was unnerved. He was a good trumpet player, perhaps the best we had. "You want me to do it for you next time?" he asked. "No," I said, reluctantly. I had to redeem myself.
The next stop was at a war memorial outside of the elementary school. I was doing the answer call again and was sent around to the side of the brick schoolhouse. A couple of smart-alec kids a few years younger than me, maybe ten or eleven, followed me to my mark. They were determined to undermine my comeback. (I never knew if they had heard my first mess-up but I've always assumed they had and were bound to see it happen again.)
They giggled and made faces when it came time for me to play. They almost got me. I almost blew it again but somehow came through at least acceptably. Later I apologized to Ms. Jackson saying I knew I had not done well. She was supportive. "That second one was perfect," she said. "The first one sounded like a car horn blew." Uh yeah, a car horn blew.
It's always bothered me that I BLEW TAPS. Such a simple song with so much meaning. How could anyone blow taps? Then I found out I wasn't alone.
I was eight years old on November 11th, 1963, the day of President John F. Kennedy's funeral. I know my family was watching it on TV, as was the entire nation and much of the world. I remember it being a tear-filled day. I certainly don't remember what is now the famous "cracked note" of "Taps" that afternoon.
Here's the story:
(Think about the words in bold as the notes of the song.)
"Day is done...' [Sergeant Keith Clark, Principal Bugler of the U.S. Army Band] started the bugle call as he had done so many times. He thought of the words of I Corinthians 15:51-52, '...we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.' The notes resounded over all assembled, though in Clark's mind the call was sounded only for the widow, Jacqueline Kennedy.
'Gone the sun...' On the sixth word (sun), he cracked the note. It was, as recalled by author William Manchester, 'like a catch in your voice, or a swiftly stifled sob.' The broken note was considered the only conspicuous slip in the otherwise ornate and grandiose ceremony. Some thought it to be a deliberate effect. It was not. The cold temperature was not conducive to musical perfection.
'...from the lake, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh. He finished the rest of the call perfectly. Clark saluted his Commander-in-Chief as the casket bearers folded the flag, which was presented to Mrs. Kennedy.
'I missed a note under pressure. It's something you don't like, but it's something that can happen to a trumpet player. You never really get over it,' Clark remembered in an Associated Press report in 1988 on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Kennedy's death. 'It's like the Speaker of the House saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States." That is not at all hard to say, but to do it then, and do it there -- that's when the pressure comes: that's when it becomes difficult all of a sudden.'...
"In the weeks following the State Funeral, the broken note took on a life of its own. The same note was missed by other buglers at Arlington. 'We all thought that it must be psychological,' Clark recalled. Indeed, the broken note has become part of our American history as much as the crack in the Liberty Bell." —TapsBugler.com
Well, MY BLOWN TAPS was a different note, a little less observed and a lot less important...but I've never gotten over it, either. Never will. Lights Out.
SIDEBAR: "'Taps' is sounded during each of the 2,500 military wreath ceremonies conducted at the Tomb of the Unknowns every year, including the ones held on Memorial Day. The ceremonies are viewed by many people, including veterans, school groups, and foreign officials. 'Taps' is also played nightly at 10 PM (2200 hrs) in military installations at non-deployed locations to indicate that it is 'lights out.' When 'Taps' is played, it is customary to salute if in uniform, or to place the right hand over the heart if out of uniform. After 'Taps' is played, it is disrespectful to clap." —Wikipedia