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A song that needs no introduction

June 15, 2017

It is dark outside. The droning of traffic on far away streets fills the night air. Over the white noise, he can hear the faint sound of a bugle call. This short, 24-note instrumental needs no introduction to the veteran sitting in his chair. He’s all too familiar with the somber tone of the notes being played.

“Taps,” the melody, not the history, is generally known to most citizens of the United States as the military funeral song. The part that isn’t well-known are the heart-wrenching moments before “Taps” is played and a gun volley disseminates the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder in the air. In a military memorial, there is a roll call before these unforgettable sights, sounds and smells.

Before the flag is folded amid the farewell with music and musket fire, there is another ceremony that occurs. Roll call begins when the rank and name of a fallen warrior is called. This is done three times, each more difficult to hear and a little longer than the last. Brothers and sisters with no divide, no social dichotomies – only warriors – listen as they hear a final wishful call to the recently departed warrior. Between each call, time dangles for a few moments as if a response is expected. That answer never comes. If “Taps” can open a door to the soul, roll call is the doorbell and death’s visit is something a veteran never forgets.

Plenty can be said about a song so beautiful and so deeply touching that both sides of the bloodiest war in American history adopted it as an official “lights out” song. In 1862, Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield was heading a brigade at Harrison Landing, Virginia. He had growing distaste for the current “lights out” song, the French final call, “L’Extinction des feux.”

So, he asked the brigade bugler, Oliver W. Norton, to play the notes. Butterfield, after listening, lengthened and shortened the notes while keeping the original melody. The first reported use of it for a burial was not long after its formation.

Captain John C. Tidball of Battery A, Second Artillery, lost a cannoneer that was killed in action. This soldier then needed to be buried at a time when the battery occupied an advanced position. Since the enemy was close, it occurred to Tidball that the sounding of “Taps” would be the most appropriate ceremony to use as a substitute. It was not given the title “Taps” until 1874. 

For 155 years, “Taps” has been played for millions of Americans who gave up lives. The weight of these fallen heroes is felt each time the notes fill the night air. The next time someone hears it played, one should take the time to listen and feel it too.

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