Calling taps: Soulful military notes are 150 years old

Calling taps: Soulful military notes are 150 years old

May 6th, 2012 by Todd South in News

David W. Cox salutes as the funeral procession for a veteran winds its way inside the National Cemetery in Chattanooga on April 27. Cox, the Tennessee state director for Bugles Across America, sounded taps for a veteran's funeral.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

The notes echo through the air as the man in a blue uniform summons breath to call a sailor home.

The Friday service in April marked yet another time David Cox had volunteered to play taps, the minutelong melody for a man who had served his country.

When the local photograph engraver started volunteering with Bugles Across America, he would see online messages posted of buglers who knew the exact number of funerals they had performed. That wasn't for him.

"I just thought I'm not going to count, because I don't want number 400 to be any more important than number 399 was," he said.

But in a couple of weeks, one ceremony may stand out for its uniqueness above the many he's played over the past five years.

Cox is among 200 buglers who will play the military tune in unison at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on May 19 -- the 150th anniversary celebration of taps. He didn't serve in the military, but works with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and sees his playing as a way to honor veterans.

When the opportunity arose to play at Arlington through Bugles Across America, a volunteer bugler organization dedicated to providing calls at military funerals, he couldn't say no.

"That's the Carnegie Hall of bugle playing, to go to Arlington," he said.

The cemetery doesn't allow the often-used digital buglers and is typically open only to military musicians.

The buglers will meet early that Saturday morning and play the call together. At the end of the ceremony each will take his or her place at a predetermined location in the cemetery and again play taps. Cox has chosen the U.S. Coast Guard Memorial.

Though he plays the bugle, Cox prefers the trumpet for the control and its sound. All the note manipulation is done with the mouth for the tune on both instruments, so he simply doesn't touch the finger buttons when using the trumpet.

Cox aims the "bell" of his trumpet at the coffin when he plays. The simple pointing keeps his eyes and mind on task and avoids what is often a wrenching moment.

"A lot of times when you start taps that's the emotional moment that really gets people," he said.

Taps historian and retired U.S. Air Force band player Jari Villanueva, of Baltimore, helped establish a history section at Arlington to showcase buglers and taps.

Villanueva said the call was used for many battlefield funeral ceremonies during the Civil War and later troops carried the tune home with them, spreading its popularity throughout the nation.

The 24-note call rang across the years at military bases around the world each day and in cemeteries each day and carried along in radio and film, giving it a special place in the emotional strain of America's military heritage.

Contact staff writer Todd South at 423-757-6347 or