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A tribute to taps 150 years later

To prepare for the day he had been waiting for, John Blair donned a white and black civilian 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 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. It was first played during the Civil War by a Union soldier who was born in Chautauqua County, N.Y.

The buglers had come from across the country for the simple ceremony.

They 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.

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.

Taps as we know it was created on a 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.

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 modern-day call was the result of a musical evolution.

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 that 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, who was born in Angelica, N.Y., and whose family later moved to Sherman, N.Y., 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."