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Title : Taps
Description : Virginia’s listless wind was like the hot effluvium from a forbidden mire. Slowly weaving through camp, the oppressive heat and stifling humidity carried the maddening buzz of mosquitoes, the low moans of those infected with dysentery and typhoid fever, and the haunting cry of men becoming aware of their own demise; battle wounds, disease, and the wretchedness of war walking with them to the threshold of death. The casualties from the Seven Days Battle were staggering; 16,000 Union soldiers were killed. A horrified colonel wrote:

“Our ears have been filled with agonizing cries from thousands before the fog was lifted, but now our eyes saw five thousand dead or wounded men were on the ground. A third of them were dead or dying, but enough of them were alive and moving to give the battlefield a singular crawling effect.”

One evening, in the midst of the harrowing July heat, General Daniel Butterfield was in his tent mulling over the notes of the “Lights Out.” It was a call to signal the day’s end. However, Butterfield felt this arrangement no longer fit the his brigade. It was neither melodious nor smooth enough, and much too formal to indicate a time of rest. Perhaps it was the heat, the misery of the men around him, or a need for distraction that compelled the general to rework the notes. Whatever caused this musing, it was the antecedent for the most famous bugle call in American history.

While making scribblings on a sheet of music, Butterfield sent for the brigade’s bugler, an Erie County resident named Oliver W. Norton who was originally from New York. For years it was believed that the general actually composed this nationally beloved version of taps from scratch, when in reality he actually revised a French call entitled “Extinguish Lights.” Although Butterfield merely lengthened and shortened notes, this revision created a deeply moving melody. On the night Norton first sounded this call, he wrote, “the music was beautiful on that still summer night, and was heard far beyond the limits of our Brigade.”

Much of music – in contrast with history’s great composers – is written by simply feeling the melody, much as Butterfield did that night. “I practiced a change in the call of taps until I had it suit my ear,” he wrote. “Got it to my taste without being able to write music.” Butterfield,despite being musically illiterate, could play the bugle and had composed a proprietary call for his brigade. Most importantly, he had recognized the melody’s effect on its listeners: “[The calls] enabled me to cause my whole command, at times, in march, covering a mile on the road, all to halt instantly, and lie down, and all arise and start at the same moment; to forward in line of battle

[simultaneously, in action and charge etc.… The men rather liked their called.” The men would sing, “Dan, Dan, Dan, Butterfield, Butterfield,” and when they were in particularly arduous situations or exceptionally difficult circumstances, they would call out, “Damn, Damn, Damn, Butterfield, Butterfield.”]

Alongside the general, of course, was the bugler who first played these monumental notes, Oliver Willcox Norton. He enlisted into the 83rd Regiment, after his first regiment, The Erie Regiment, disbanded after three short months. While in the 83rd, Norton first sounded taps serving under Butterfield, and later for Strong Vincent, under which he became headquarter bugler, aide, and flag-bearer.

Although Norton’s view of Vincent started unfavorably, they became close over time, as the bugler must be in proximity to his commander at all times. Both educated, patriotic, and strong in their war views, Vincent and Norton grew to enjoy each other’s company. Later, Norton named his son after Vincent, and the colonel’s sword would later be handed down to that son. On July 2nd, Norton was with Vincent during the second day of Gettysburg where the soon-to-be brigade general was mortally wounded on Little Round Top.

Taps is still sounded today as a military funeral ritual. While we recognize music as a magical, soulful, emotive expression through sound, we often forget the utility of the call. Music can modify our mood, solidify a moment in our minds, and even open our eyes to some greater truth. Just as a strong rhythm can make us dance, a bugle call can make men march, order them to fight, and lead them off to sleep, whether for a night or for eternity.
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