Historian Explains The Origin Of "Taps"

The languid, melancholy sound of a bugle call is a fixture at military funerals. But it wasn't always that way. The song taps used to signal 'lights out' for soldiers to go to sleep. Taps historian Jari Villanueva, a former ceremonial bugler at Arlington National Cemetery, discusses the evolution of the song and the meaning of Memorial Day.

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ALLISON KEYES, host: I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, the weekly Can I Just Tell You commentary. That's in a bit.

But, first, the bugle call played at military funerals is ingrained in American culture as the music of mourning, but it wasn't always that way. "Taps" started out as a military signal for soldiers to turn out the lights and go to bed.

My next guest is a "Taps" historian and a retired trumpeter for the United States Air Force Band. With us now in the studio is Jari Villanueva, who played "Taps" at military funerals at Arlington Cemetery for 23 years. He's now director of the Maryland National Honor Guard. Thanks for joining us.

JARI VILLANUEVA: Thank you for having me. It's my honor to do over 300 military funerals a month for our Maryland veterans.

KEYES: Wow. We're going to talk a bit about the history of "Taps." But, first, would you honor us with a performance?

VILLANUEVA: Sure. This is a bugle call that was used during the Civil War. It's called "Extinguish Lights" and it's found in the early manuals. And it was the call prior to the Civil War that would tell soldiers to put out the lights and go to sleep.

KEYES: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUGLE CALL)

KEYES: So that's the call that inspired "Taps" in the first place.

VILLANUEVA: Sort of. It's the call that was replaced by "Taps."

KEYES: OK.

VILLANUEVA: And the call that I just played came from the French. It was written as early as 1809. And interestingly enough, it was Napoleon's favorite bugle call.

KEYES: Really?

VILLANUEVA: Yes. And it was the call that would be sounded at, like I said, at the end of the day to tell the soldiers to put out the lights, extinguish the lights and go to sleep.

KEYES: But the gentleman that eventually composed "Taps" had an issue with that music, didn't he?

VILLANUEVA: Yes. General Daniel Butterfield thought that that particular call was just a little too formal-sounding to end the day. So he decided that he would revise that bugle call.

KEYES: Can you play us "Taps" as we know it now?

VILLANUEVA: Yes, here is "Taps." There's 24 notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "TAPS")

KEYES: That is such a beautiful song. I always want to cry every time I hear it. And you're playing it on a beautiful instrument. Tell us about it.

VILLANUEVA: Yes, I'm playing it on a vintage instrument that comes from the 1860s. It's actually called a clarion. And it's of course imported from France. It's made out of copper, has a brass garland out of it that surrounds the bell and it's an instrument that was used by the military buglers of the Civil War.

Now the tune that, of course that I just played, "Taps," was not so much composed by General Daniel Butterfield, but actually a revision of an earlier bugle call that went out of use just prior to the Civil War. He got his brigade bugler, a 22-year-old by the name of Oliver Wilcox Norton, to help him revise that earlier bugle call into those 24 notes that we know today as "Taps."

KEYES: All right. If you're just joining us, I'm Allison Keyes and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are joined in the studio today, by Jari Villanueva, "Taps" bugler and historian. How did you go from doing the military memorial service work to honoring fallen military personnel?

VILLANUEVA: Well, it all started, of course, with my experience in the Air Force band. I entered the Air Force in 1985 as a trumpeter in the Ceremonial Brass, which is the ceremonial unit of the United States Air Force band. And working day in and day out with the Honor Guard, I became quite familiar with military funeral protocols and also protocols for any type of military ceremonies. And this, of course, led to my experience not only playing military funerals at Arlington, but also doing ceremonies at the White House, arrival ceremonies at Andrews Air Force Base, and before I retired, being part of the funeral services for former presidents Ronald Reagan and also former president Gerald Ford.

KEYES: That's a big responsibility. But I've got to ask you, this seems like it would be really emotional work. How do you handle it?

VILLANUEVA: It certainly is emotional because when you sound "Taps" at a military funeral, you're representing the country in - by saying farewell to someone who has served. And if you decide that you want to become emotional with every single performance, you won't last more than about a month or so. So we tend to step back a little bit and focus in on the mission at hand - sounding "Taps" the best that we can do at that military funeral. And not only with the emotional part, but as a ceremonial trumpeter at Arlington, you also have to deal with the weather. Extreme heat, extreme cold, rain, snow - it all factors into your performance. But you want to make sure that every time that you sound "Taps," it's for the family, and you want to make it perfect.

KEYES: I understand that you started out as a musician first.

VILLANUEVA: Yes, I actually started playing when I was in junior high school, then to high school and got a scholarship to Peabody Conservatory, where I got my degree in music education. Actually went out and taught for a few years, then went to Kent State University in Kent, Ohio for my Masters in trumpet performance, then came back and enlisted in the Air Force, was accepted into the Air Force band and had a great 23 years. It was a wonderful time for me to be able to perform for the military, doing something that I absolutely love to do, performing on the trumpet and the bugle.

KEYES: I have to say, "Taps" is really part of our national culture now. You hear it in movies, it's played in some summer camps. How did it become such a part of our culture?

VILLANUEVA: It's become part of our culture, of course, because it's heard so many times. There's not a single bugle call in the world that you can identify after hearing the first three notes. And of course, of anyone who's been to summer camp or has served in the military, they'll know that that call is sounded every evening as that final call for lights out. And, of course, the many words that were put to that particular song helped ingrain the song itself into our national conscience.

KEYES: And that they're sometimes performed by choruses as well. Although I think most people, they're most familiar with just hearing that single horn.

VILLANUEVA: Yes. "Taps" is performed many different ways. And in fact, as we look forward to the 150th anniversary of "Taps," the organization I belong with, which is called, appropriately enough, TAPS 150, is getting ready to release a CD in which you have many versions of "Taps," including some vocal renditions. There are at least four vocal renditions that will be on the CD. We have some performances of "Taps" by some noted trumpet players who have given of their time and talents to make this CD into a really wonderful little bit of history of how "Taps" came about.

KEYES: And the first words lyric that begins with day is done, were they?

VILLANUEVA: No. Actually the first words were very inspiring. Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Go to sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VILLANUEVA: Put out the lights. Put out the lights. Put out the lights.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: Tell us the rest of those lyrics that everyone knows a bit.

VILLANUEVA: Well, of course, the most familiar one is day is done, gone the sun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAPS")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Day is done, gone the sun.

VILLANUEVA: From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAPS")

PEOPLE: (Singing) From the lake, from the hills, from the sky...

VILLANUEVA: All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAPS")

PEOPLE: (Singing) All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

VILLANUEVA: And that's probably, those sets of lyrics are probably the most familiar ones that we know. And it's very interesting that even though "Taps" is an official bugle call of the military, there are no official lyrics because there are many other lyrics that go with it.

KEYES: Interesting. I wonder if you could tell us how it went from an everyday signal to a funeral rite.

VILLANUEVA: Well, shortly after the song was composed or revised back in 1862, there was a funeral in one of the artillery companies. And the captain in charge, whose name was John Tidball, decided that he did not want to fire the customary three volleys over the grave, since he was afraid that firing those three customary volleys might tell the enemy that we're going to start fighting again. He just simply told his bugler to sound "Taps." So that became the first time it was associated with a military funeral. After the Civil War, both "Taps" and the firing of the three volleys became part of our military funerals as we know it today. And it's become a custom now that you will hear "Taps" on Memorial Day as well as Veterans Day.

KEYES: I want to ask, though, there must be military families that can't afford to have an actual bugler come to their service. What are their options?

VILLANUEVA: There are a couple options. Well, in Maryland, I'm proud to say that the Maryland National Guard will provide a live bugler for any military funeral upon request. However, if you cannot find a live bugler through the military, there are a couple of different options. There's a wonderful organization called Bugles Across America. If you go onto their website you can find a bugler in your area just by a few clicks of the mouse. And then, of course, the last resort that we would have would be a digital or the fake bugle. And what it is, it's a horn that looks like mine except that it has an insert that you put into the bell. And the insert is actually a small MP3 player. When it comes time for "Taps," the person holding the horn - I won't say he's not - he's not playing it.

KEYES: Right.

VILLANUEVA: He will actually flip a button and then hold the horn up and then out of the bell comes the sound of "Taps." And it's a wonderful recording. And it's appropriate to use this device when you can't find a bugler.

KEYES: Let me just ask you. On Memorial Day, a lot of people are barbecuing or going to the beach or whatever. But obviously it's got a much more serious meaning. I wonder if you could share with us what you would like for people to keep in mind on Memorial Day.

VILLANUEVA: On Memorial Day, it's the day that we actually go and visit the graves of those who have served our country. They're the ones that, who gave everything so that we can enjoy those things that we're going to enjoy over the weekend - going out visiting with the family, going to the beach and having cookouts and stuff. So it's important that over the weekend at some time that we take a few minutes and reflect on those great things.

Jari Villanueva is a "Taps" historian and former ceremonial bugler at Arlington National Cemetery. He now works as a director for the Maryland National Guard Honor Guard, and joined us here in the studio in Washington, D.C. to tell us some of the history of "Taps" and to play for us.

KEYES: Mr. Villanueva, thanks so much for coming in.

VILLANUEVA: Thank you very much.

KEYES: And we're going to use some music from your upcoming "Taps 150" CD to play us out. Here's "Taps for a Fallen Brave."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAPS FOR A FALLEN BRAVE")

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