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‘Taps’ Marks 150th Anniversary On Memorial Day

Former Marine Tom Day plays "Taps" on the bugle. (Credit: CBS)

Former Marine Tom Day plays “Taps” on the bugle. (Credit: CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS) – One of America’s most recognizable bugle calls, one that will be heard again and again in towns big and small on this Memorial Day, reaches a major milestone this year. This is the 150th anniversary of Taps, the nation’s song of remembrance.

WBBM’s Steve Grzanich reports the origin of Taps dates back to the Civil War when Union Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield changed an earlier piece of music called “Tattoo” which had previously been used to signify lights out.

Butterfield considered the older infantry call too formal and wanted something to honor his men. In July 1862, he enlisted the help of bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, took the last part of Tattoo, made a few changes and came up with the 24 notes we know today as Taps.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Steve Grzanich reports


“It was such a melodic 24 notes, they thought that since they used it at the end of the day, why not use it as a funeral piece as well and that was the birth of Taps,” said Bugles Across America Founder Tom Day of Berwyn.

Day, an ex-Marine, founded Bugles Across America in 2000 to make sure a live person would be available to play Taps at military funerals. Congress had just passed legislation guaranteeing veterans the right to have Taps played at their funerals but not enough buglers were available for every burial. A recording of Taps was usually the only option available.

“It’s stolen dignity for that veteran,” said Day. “You don’t have to have a recording. A recording is a recording and the military throws the device back in their trunk and they’re gone. Ours is no battery required, from the heart and real breath.”

Bugles Across America has enlisted nearly 8,000 horn players from around the world who travel to towns big and small to play Taps at hundreds and sometimes thousands of military funerals each month.

“We’ve done over 200,000 funerals and we’re requested now by the military. The Pentagon credits us with at least 36 percent of all the funerals,” Day said.

According to Day, playing Taps is always emotional because of the live interaction with veteran families.

“It all comes from the heart and goes through this horn. When a family hears it and they know you came out for their veteran, they come over and give you a hug, a handshake or a kiss on the cheek and they’re very appreciative,” he said.

On May 19, Day joined 200 other buglers at Arlington National Cemetery, where they sounded Taps collectively and individually to mark the 150th anniversary. Day, who graduated from Chicago’s Taft High School, played at President Howard Taft’s grave.

Being able to honor veterans and their families is what drives Day from funeral to funeral.

“I’m still serving my country and doing something for that family and giving the dignity that that veteran deserves. It’s an honor to pay that respect and give that last piece of music–that going away song to a veteran,” he said.

Day will play Taps at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery southwest of Chicago this Memorial Day.

“Memorial Day to me is not a picnic, it’s not a sale. It’s seeing a veteran and thanking them. And if you’re family had someone pass away as a veteran, dropping by that headstone and maybe dusting it off a little bit and remembering what war is all about. This man or this woman put it all on the line and taking a few minutes of one day a year might not be a bad thing.”