Special ceremony for a special bugle call, the mournful taps

To prepare for the day he’d been waiting for, John Blair donned a white and black service uniform. He polished his silver trumpet, the one he first played back in 1985 as a high school junior. He packed the instrument carefully in its leather bag and drove through a clear May morning to Arlington National Cemetery.

There he joined about 200 other buglers and trumpeters who gathered Saturday to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the composing of taps — the spare, melancholy call that has long been a traditional part of military funerals and services and is used to signal “lights out” at U.S. military bases around the world.

The buglers had come from across the country for the simple ceremony. For many, including Blair, it would be their first and perhaps only opportunity to sound the famous melody on Arlington’s hallowed ground.

Blair, 43, is the state director of Bugles Across America for Virginia and the District. He is devoted to the nonprofit organization’s goal of ensuring that all veterans have a bugler to play at their funerals — in part, because he was unable to play for his own father’s memorial service in 2000. His music skills had lagged since he last played in college, he said.

Thanks to a local high school trumpet player, Blair’s family was spared having to play a recording of taps at the service. But Blair was distraught that he couldn’t sound the call for his father himself.

“I felt terrible for that,” he said. “It’s what motivated me to get back into playing.”

On Saturday, Blair and his fellow buglers sounded taps three times: twice all together at the cemetery’s Old Amphitheater, and once from various stations across the grounds, just after the noon chimes.

Blair stood in Section 34, at the grave of Frank Buckles, the last U.S. veteran of World War I to pass away. The grave was more than a thousand miles from where Blair’s father, a decorated Korean War veteran, was buried 12 years ago in Clayton, Okla. But Blair was sounding the call for him, too.

“For him and for all the heroes everywhere,” Blair said.

* * *

The call is 24 notes long, a simple line of music that lasts only a matter of seconds. But taps, dubbed the national song of remembrance, has become one of the most recognized and evocative melodies in American culture.

Patrick Warfield, an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland at College Park and a specialist in American musical culture, said taps has a “transcendent” quality that goes beyond the melody.

“Every country has their own national mythology,” Warfield said. “In the U.S., we are so connected to the notion of egalitarianism, patriotism, democracy, equality.”

Taps is, in essence, a musical representation of those values, he said.

“Taps is easy, it’s accessible, it’s uncomplicated. It doesn’t have any of the trappings of high art. There’s no sense that you have to be smart or gifted or talented to understand it, to like it, to love it.”

Jari Villanueva, who spent 23 years playing with the U.S. Air Force Band and is considered the nation’s foremost expert on taps, said the music has deep associations for many.

“When people hear it, they automatically remember a certain person or time, somewhere they’ve been,” he said. “That piece of music can really draw us back into our own emotions and memories of something.”

* * *

By 10 a.m. Saturday, onlookers filled the sunny center of Arlington’s Old Amphitheater, high on a hill overlooking the monuments and landmarks of Washington. Buglers circled the perimeter, men and women of all ages, instruments in hand. They were clad in formal attire from different chapters of history — modern and historical military uniforms, Boy Scout uniforms, police uniforms.

Together, they became one voice during the first mass sounding of taps, and then a chorus of harmonized instruments during the second. The notes soared, strong enough to drown even the sound of a low-flying jet overhead.

* * *

Taps as we know it was created on a sweltering July night in 1862, at Harrison’s Landing, Va., where Union Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield and his brigade were in camp after the brutal Seven Days Battles.

The modern-day call was the result of a musical evolution, Villanueva said. In the wake of violence that claimed the lives of more than 600 of his soldiers, Butterfield decided to honor his men by revising the traditional infantry call to “extinguish lights,” used to signal the end of the day. Butterfield felt the music, borrowed from the French, was too formal and ornate for its purpose.

So he lengthened some notes and shortened others — simple revisions that stripped the music of its pomp and fanfare. Butterfield’s brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, sounded the new call for the first time that night.

Shortly after, taps was used at a funeral for a cannoneer, Villanueva said. The captain presiding over the funeral decided to substitute the call for the traditional firing of three volleys, fearful that the enemy would hear the muskets and think the battle had resumed.

“Instead, he had his bugler sound the call,” Villanueva said. “And it caught on.”

Taps has been played as an unofficial part of military funerals since the end of the Civil War, Villanueva said, but there was one defining service in particular when the call was seared into the collective memory of people across the world.

“At the funeral of John F. Kennedy, it was heard worldwide by millions,” he said. “It was the first time that the entire world was able to look in on what a funeral procession was like at Arlington National Cemetery, with the troops and the caisson, the pomp and circumstance.”

Villanueva was 8 years old at the time. He remembers watching, riveted, as the bugler played for the fallen president.

“That struck me deeply,” he said.

Many years later, he would come full circle: In 1999, Villanueva, who has played taps at Arlington more than 5,000 times, escorted the bugle used at Kennedy’s funeral from the Smithsonian Institution to its current home at the Visitor’s Center at Arlington.

* * *

On most days, a passerby at Arlington might hear the singular call of taps echoing from one corner of the cemetery or another, among the rows of white gravestones.

But just after noon on Saturday, something remarkable happened: The stillness gave way to the plaintive calls of hundreds of distinct brass voices, the familiar notes rising from every acre of the sprawling grounds.

In Section 34, facing Buckles’s headstone, John Blair whispered a prayer and pressed his trumpet to his lips. He sounded the simple lines of music with even breaths — for the last known U.S. veteran of the First World War, for the fallen in the surrounding fields, for his father.

The calls came rolling over the hills in gentle rounds, each one slightly different, reflecting the subtle variations of instruments and their owners.

For several minutes, the place was overwhelmed by the sound. Then the last, faint notes dissolved in the soft afternoon breeze, and quiet fell again.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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