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"Taps" is a musical piece sounded at dusk, and at funerals, particularly by the U.S. military. It is sounded during flag ceremonies and funerals, generally on bugle or trumpet, and often at Boy Scout, Girl Scout and Girl Guide meetings and camps. The tune is also sometimes known as "Butterfield's Lullaby", or by the first line of the lyric, "Day is Done".
The tune is a variation of an earlier bugle call known as the Scott Tattoo which was used in the U.S. from 1835 until 1860, and was arranged in its present form by the Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, an American Civil War general and Medal of Honor recipient who commanded the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division in the V Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac while at Harrison's Landing, Virginia, in July 1862 to replace a previous French bugle call used to signal "lights out". Butterfield's bugler, Oliver Wilcox Norton, of East Springfield, Pennsylvania, was the first to sound the new call. Within months, "Taps" was used by both Union and Confederate forces. It was officially recognized by the United States Army in 1874.
"Taps" concludes many military funerals conducted with honors at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as hundreds of others around the United States. The tune is also sounded at many memorial services in Arlington's Memorial Amphitheater and at grave sites throughout the cemetery.
Captain John C. Tidball, West Point Class of 1848, started the custom of playing taps at military funerals. In early July 1862 at Harrison’s Landing, a corporal of Tidball’s Battery A, 2nd Artillery, died. He was, Tidball recalled later, “a most excellent man.” Tidball wished to bury him with full military honors, but, for military reasons, he was refused permission to fire three guns over the grave. Tidball later wrote, “The thought suggested itself to me to sound taps instead, which I did. The idea was taken up by others, until in a short time it was adopted by the entire army and is now looked upon as the most appropriate and touching part of a military funeral.” As Tidball proudly proclaimed, “Battery A has the honor of having introduced this custom into the service, and it is worthy of historical note.”
It became a standard component to U.S. military funerals in 1891.
"Taps" is sounded during each of the 2,500 military wreath ceremonies conducted at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every year, including the ones held on Memorial Day. The ceremonies are viewed by many people, including veterans, school groups, and foreign officials. "Taps" also is sounded nightly in military installations at non-deployed locations to indicate that it is "lights out", and often by Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Girl Guides to mark the end of an evening event such as a campfire.
The melody of "Taps" is composed entirely from the written notes of the C major triad (i.e., C, E, and G, with the G used in the lower and higher octaves). This is because the bugle, for which it is written, can play only the notes in the harmonic series of the instrument's fundamental tone; a B-flat bugle thus plays the notes B-flat, D, and F. "Taps" uses the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth partials. [Note: in E-flat this transposes to B-flat, E-flat and G.]
There is one original set of lyrics meant to accompany the music, written by Horace Lorenzo Trim:
Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.
Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.
Thanks and praise for our daysGod is nigh.
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know
Several later lyrical adaptations have been created. One, written by Horace Lorenzo Trim, is shown below:
Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming brightFriend, goodnight.
From afar drawing nigh,
Falls the night.
Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the skies
All is well, safely rest;
God is nigh.
Then goodnight, peaceful night;
Till the light of the dawn shineth bright.
God is near, do not fear,
The other popular version, penned and harmonized by famed composer Josef Pasternack, is:
Love, sweet dreams!
Lo, the beams of the light Fairy moon kissed the streams,Peaceful dreams!
Ah so soon!
Another set of lyrics, used in a recording made by John Wayne about the song, is:
Falling nightGod is near.
Trumpet call, as the sun, sinks in flight
Sleep in peace, comrades dear,
There are several legends concerning the origin of "Taps". The most widely circulated one states that a Union Army infantry officer, whose name often is given as Captain Robert Ellicombe, first ordered "Taps" performed at the funeral of his son, a Confederate soldier killed during the Peninsula Campaign. This apocryphal story claims that Ellicombe found the tune in the pocket of his son's clothing and performed it to honor his memory, but there is no record of any man named Robert Ellicombe holding a commission as captain in the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign.
That Daniel Butterfield composed "Taps" has been sworn to by numerous reputable witnesses including his bugler Norton, who first performed the tune. While scholars continue to debate whether or not the tune was original or based on an earlier melody, few researchers doubt that Butterfield is responsible for the current tune.
Another, perhaps more historically verifiable, account of "Taps" first being used in the context of a military funeral involves John C. Tidball, a Union artillery captain who during a break in fighting ordered the tune sounded for a deceased soldier in lieu of the more traditional—and much less discreet—three volley tribute. Army Col. James A. Moss, in an Officer's Manual initially published in 1911, reports the following:
"During the Peninsula Campaign in 1862, a soldier of Tidball's Battery A of the 2nd Artillery was buried at a time when the battery occupied an advanced position concealed in the woods. It was not safe to fire the customary three volleys over the grave, on account of the proximity of the enemy, and it occurred to Capt. Tidball that the sounding of Taps would be the most appropriate ceremony that could be substituted."
While not necessarily addressing the origin of the "Taps", this does represent the first recorded instance of "Taps" being sounded as part of a military funeral. Until then, while the tune had meant that the soldiers' day of work was finished, it had little to none of the connotation or overtone of death, with which it so often is associated today.
Another lesser-known legend is that of Lieutenant William Waid paying saloon-keepers to shut off the taps to the kegs when the song was played in a neighboring army camp. LT Waid's name has not been found in Union or Confederate records.
Although primarily used within the military, several local or special variations of the tune are performed, primarily by organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America or American military schools.
Echo Taps is a song traditionally played at American military schools such as Virginia Tech, Norwich University, The Citadel, NMMI and Texas A&M University when a member or former member of a school's Corps of Cadets is killed in action.
At Norwich University, the ceremony is held on the Upper Parade Ground, where the Corps of Cadets forms up silently at 2245 (10:45 p.m.) for tattoo, and then stand in silence until 2300 (11:00 p.m.) when echo taps is played, at which time unit commanders tacitly will give the commands of attention and present arms. The Regimental Bugler stands either near the flagpole in front of Jackman Hall or on Jackman's balcony and plays the main tune of Taps. The echoing bugler will stand on the steps of Dewey Hall facing the Parade Ground and echo each series of notes. Following the playing of taps, the Corps of Cadets dismisses in silence.
At Texas A&M, Echo Taps is held on the Quadrangle (the 12-dorm complex that is used mainly by the Corps) at 10:00 p.m. the night they find out. For the ceremony the Corps falls out and forms up along the length of the quad, a bugler is posted at the megaphone on the south end and another is at the arches on the north end, cadets salute and the bugler on the south end plays the first three notes of Silver Taps the bugler on the north end echoes, the bugler on the south end plays the next three notes and is echoed for the rest of the song. Cadets then return to their dorms. By far, one of Texas A&M's most honored traditions is Silver Taps. Silver Taps is held for a graduate or undergraduate student who dies while enrolled at A&M. This final tribute is held the first Tuesday of the month when a student has died the previous month.
The first Silver Taps was held in 1898 and honored Lawrence Sullivan Ross, the former governor of Texas and president of A&M College. Silver Taps is currently held in the Academic Plaza. On the day of Silver Taps, a small card with the deceased students name, class, major, and date of birth is placed as a notice at the base of the academic flagpole, in addition to the memorial located behind the flagpole. Around 10:15 that night, the lights are extinguished and hymns chime from Albritton Tower. Students silently gather at the statue of Lawrence Sullivan Ross. At 10:30 p.m., the Ross Volunteer Firing Squad marches into the plaza and fires three rifle volleys. Six Buglers then play a special rendition of Silver Taps by Colonel Richard Dunn (Aggie Band Director, 1924-1946). Taps is played three times from the dome of the Academic Building: once to the north, south, and west. It is not played to the east because the sun will never rise on that Aggie again. After the buglers play, the students silently return to their homes. Silver Taps is a sacred tradition that Aggies hold dear. Students return to their dorms, and lights remain extinguished until Reveille the next morning.
At New Mexico Military Institute, "Echo Taps" (otherwise known as "Silver Taps") is played by three trumpets on a night designated by the alumni association. This ceremony is held in the Hagerman Barracks to remember all the alumni who had died of normal causes or KIA that year. This ceremony also includes the lighting and extinguishing of a candle for every alumni of the year. One bugler is posted at the north, south, and west side of the barracks and the candles at the east. After this early "Taps", complete silence marks the rest of the night.
Army Regulation 220-90, Army Bands dated December 2007, Paragraph 2-5h(1) states the following: “Echo Taps” or “Silver Taps,” the practice of performing “Taps” with multiple buglers, is not authorized. “Echo Taps” is not a part of Army tradition and improperly uses bugler assets.
Army Regulation 600-25, Salutes, Honors, and Visits of Courtesy, dated September 2004, Glossary, Section two states the following: "Taps The traditional “lights out” musical composition played at military funerals and memorials. The official version of “Taps” is played by a single bugle. In accordance with AR 220–90, “Echo or Silver Taps,” which is performed by two buglers, is not authorized."
Field Manual 12-50, U.S. Army Bands, dated October 1999, Appendix A, Official And Ceremonial Music, Appendix A, Section 1 – Ceremonial Music, Paragraph A-35 "A-35. Signals that unauthorized lights are to be extinguished. This is the last call of the day. The call is also sounded at the completion of a military funeral ceremony. Taps is to be performed by a single bugler only. Performance of "Silver Taps" or "Echo Taps" is not consistent with Army traditions, and is an improper use of bugler assets.
Many Scouting and Guiding groups around the world sing the second verse of "Taps" ("Day is Done...") at the close of a camp or campfire. Scouts in encampment may also have the unit's bugler sound taps once the rest of the unit has turned in, to signify that the day's activities have concluded and that silence is expected in the camp.
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