By Jeff Olson
How many of us have attended funerals or memorial services for an American veteran and, at the end, heard that sobering reminder of the commitment to duty, honor and country given at the altar of freedom?
Taps is among the most American of traditions in honoring those who payed the ultimate price for freedom. Having played Taps many times, I know it to be very simple (only 4 different notes and 24 total notes) but also among the most musically challenging of songs to do appropriately well.
However, this simplicity is at the core of its capacity to convey its profound and eternal message; a message which evokes a depth of emotion which penetrates the soul and resonates with the patriotic legacy of those for whom it honors and the patriotic spirit of those who are honoring. This month marks the 158th anniversary of Taps, and so we shall take a closer look.
Taps is actually a variation of a French bugle call known as the “Scott Tattoo” (signaling “lights out”) which was used in the U.S. from 1835 to 1860. The variation was arranged by Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield because he thought that the regular call for Lights Out was too formal.
He wrote it to honor his men while in camp at Harrison’s Landing (now Berkeley Plantation), Virginia, following seven days of battle during the Peninsular Campaign where 600 men were killed and Butterfield himself was wounded. Butterfield’s bugler, Oliver W. Norton, was the first to play the new call in July 1862.
Several days later Captain John C. Tidball, Battery A Commander, had the call played for a deceased soldier; the first time it was part of a military funeral. Within months both Union and Confederate forces were using it. In 1874 the call was officially recognized with the name “Taps” by the U.S. Army, and it became a standard component to U.S. military funerals in 1891.
Since then, Taps has become America’s song of remembrance and is still played at thousands of ceremonies and services across the nation, including the 2,500 military wreath ceremonies each year at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tune has also been known as “Butterfield’s Lullaby”, or by the first line of the lyric, “Day is Done.”
While there are no official words to Taps, many lyrics have been written and there are several versions.
This is among the most popular: “Day is done, gone the sun, From the hills, from the lake, From the skies. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
“Go to sleep, peaceful sleep, May the soldier or sailor, God keep. On the land or the deep, Safe in sleep. Love, good night, Must thou go, When the day, And the night Need thee so?
“All is well. Speedeth all To their rest. Fades the light; And afar Goeth day, And the stars Shineth bright, Fare thee well; Day has gone, Night is on.
“Thanks and praise, For our days, ‘Neath the sun, ‘Neath the stars, ‘Neath the sky, As we go, This we know, God is nigh.”
In the prayer of Chaplain (Colonel) Edward Brogan (USAF, Ret.) “Lord of our lives, our hope in death, we cannot listen to Taps without our souls stirring. Its plaintive notes are a prayer in music–of hope, of peace, of grief, of rest… Prepare us too, Lord, for our final bugle call when you summon us home! When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and death will be no more.”