A Bugler’s Call

On Veterans Day, thousands of people will hear the plaintive echoes of taps. Taped versions of this music are becoming more common, but volunteers are ready and willing to play it live.

Its 24 notes form the most famous of bugle calls and will be heard throughout the country this Veterans Day. It turned 150 this year, but whatever its age, taps will never get old. 

“It’s a tune that’s easily recognized in the first couple notes,” says bugler Jari Villanueva. “It’s a song that touches people in so many ways, and affects people in so many ways.”

Many count Villanueva as the nation’s foremost expert on military bugle calls, particularly taps. He’s performed the call for thousands of funerals and memorial events at Arlington National Cemetery and others.

Additionally, he was the curator of the taps exhibit at Arlington. Villanueva was inducted into the Buglers Hall of Fame in 2007. He was the first active duty bugler ever so honored.

“It’s a call played every single day in virtually every corner of the nation,” offers Villanueva. “I don’t know any other piece of music like that.”

Is It Live?

However, increasingly when people hear taps at funerals and memorial events, they’re not listening to the “real” thing. Instead they’re hearing recordings of taps playing from the bells of “ceremonial bugles.”

Tom Day, founder of Bugles Across America, says live playing of taps is easier to get than many realize. His organization is dedicated to preserving live playing of the revered bugle call.

Participants in the 150th anniversary of taps ceremony included Jari Villanueva, bugle historian (second from left).

Day has performed taps at thousands of funerals for fallen servicemembers and veterans. He started as a Chicago youth in the Norwood Park Drum and Bugle Corps.

“The (Veterans of Foreign Wars) came over to our corps and asked, ‘Who can play taps?’” he remarks. “I raised my hand.”

Shortly thereafter, he was performing taps at a funeral. That was in 1950. Day is still playing taps at funerals and memorial events.

Don’t Settle

Under the Department of Defense’s Honoring Those Who Served program, veterans qualify for military funeral honors, including the playing of taps.

As many veterans and their families have taken advantage of the program, the need for buglers outstripped the military’s supply. Ceremonial bugles, which require no horn skills, are used to make up for the shortfall. A ceremonial bugle has a recording of taps on a device that’s inserted into the instrument’s bell. The bugle is held to the lips as though one is playing as it sounds taps.

“It’s discouraging,” Villanueva offers. “You’d much rather see a live player out there, than to see a reliance on the recording all the time. There’s a sound difference in the quality.”

Day says that with thousands of horn players in its database, Bugles Across America can almost always get volunteers to funerals and events to play taps.

One of those volunteer buglers is John Murphy. He says families should quickly tell funeral homes handling veterans’ burials that they want live performances of taps, and not settle for anything else.  

“If the military says, ‘We have a bugler,’ ask them if it’s a live bugler,” Murphy says. “If it’s not, then ask (the funeral home) for a live bugler.”

Day says anyone with any horn experience can learn or, more likely, remember how to play taps in short order. 

A Taps Tale

Taps’ haunting beauty has a mystique that evokes melancholy images that easily spin themselves into fantastic tales. One of the most circulated tales about taps involves Civil War Union Capt. Robert Ellicombe.

After a fierce day of pitched battle, Ellicombe heard a wounded soldier moaning alone in the blackness of night. The captain risked his life to retrieve the injured man who was trapped on a narrow piece of torn land separating the battle-hardened Union and Confederate armies.

When Ellicombe neared campfires he realized he was saving a Confederate soldier — a Confederate soldier who turned out to be his son. The lad had been studying music in the south when the Civil War broke out. Unknown to the captain, the younger Ellicombe volunteered for the Confederate Army.

Sadly, the young man died that night, but the heartbroken father found a short bit of music in his son’s pocket. Ellicombe had the uncompleted melody played at his son’s burial the next day. Thus was taps born.

The Real Story

Villanueva says it’s a great story that captures the imagination, but is bunk. To prove it, he has something for anyone who produces a shred of evidence Ellicombe and his son existed.

“I was offering a $2,000, gold-plated bugle,” he says. “All I need is the unit the guy was in and where he’s buried.”    

 At his website, tapsbugler.com, Villanueva has the real story of taps. Turns out that like so many tunes, calls and songs of the Civil War, taps was a variation of an existing bugle call, which was itself a variation of another bugle call.

In July 1862, Gen. Daniel Butterfield and brigade bugler Oliver Norton crafted the new extinguish-lights bugle call. Butterfield thought the Army’s official end-of-day bugle call, which was apparently a variation of a French bugle call, was too stiff and formal.

While the two men later gave slightly different accounts of how taps was composed, the new end-of-day bugle call caught on quickly with Union and Confederate buglers. Union and Confederate camps were often close enough that fifers, buglers and drummers could hear one another.

Villanueva says taps has been an official bugle call at military funerals since 1891, but likely came to be used for that purpose long before then.

How the name taps came about is open to some conjecture.

It could have been a reference to the bugle call requiring the closure of beer taps. More likely it’s a reference to the fact that after a bugler played the end-of-day call, a drummer would sound a short series of taps. 

To find a bugler or for more information, visit buglesacrossamerica.org.




A Rolling Salute

For more information on the Lone Star PVA Honor Guard, visit mypva.org or call 800-583-5252.


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