WWI-era Theme for 2017 Virginia International Tattoo


By Jeff Maisey


This year marks the 100th anniversary of Naval Station Norfolk and the centennial of America’s entry into World War I. The historic milestones along with all the stunning pageantry of Virginia International Tattoo will be on full display April 27-30 at Norfolk Scope.

To learn more about this year’s Tattoo – now in its 21st season – I chatted with its executive director, Scott Jackson. Here’s an excerpt from our discussion.


What is new in 2017 with the Tattoo?


The theme every year changes, and with this year marking 100 years of the US entry into World War I is really momentous milestone for the nation. And the fact that Naval Station Norfolk was founded that same year in 1917 makes it also a national milestone with a local tie.

Having that theme of honoring the Americans who served and the Allies we served with in what was called the Great War is new for the show. It’s going to lead to some new things. For example, we focused on historical ties to WWI so our cast includes the six Allied nations that served together – the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Australia, and New Zealand. Of course, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were essentially under the British Empire at that point.

We’re including some great music from that era. We’ve got music from Irving Berlin, who was actually drafted during World War 1 and was Sergeant Irving Berlin. He wrote some great patriotic music. The US Army thought he could do more with a pencil than a gun so they had him writing patriotic music. We’ll do a suite of his little-known music from that era.

Another interesting story is of John Phillips Sousa, who had long retired from the marines, at the age of 62 enlisted in the navy and went to their Great Lakes base and started a band program and wrote some great patriotic marches that aren’t well-known. My favorite is “Solid Men to the Front,” and it will lead the finale this year.

We’ll also hear Holst’s “Mars,” which was written during the WWI era. That’ll be played by the Air Force Band from Langley who will accompany it with some video footage from space.

Our pipes and drums will play a famous march called “Battle of the Somme.” It was written by a piper that fought in the Battle of the Somme and sadly died there. That will lead the pipes out in the show this year.

A group this year that I’m excited about from Singapore is a traditional concert marching band joined by a precision rifle team and traditional Chinese dance and acrobats; a unique blend of western music and eastern music, western costume and eastern costume.

From France we have the premiere band in the military – the French Air Force Band. We have General Mercier to thank for getting them here. They’ll do a very beautiful musical display of French music starting with Ravel’s “Bolero” with a very orchestral sound; they have two oboes, two bassoons, for example, in their ranks.


During WWI, the Americans were referred to as Doughboys and wore a unique style of hat/helmet. Is that incorporated into the costuming of the Tattoo this year?


Yes. It’s interest you say that. During the show on the video screen we’ll have a silhouette of someone with a riffle. We’re going to take WWI era silhouettes of the Doughboys, giving it that since of history throughout the show.


The British lost a tremendous number of soldiers in WWI. The red poppies are symbolic of their deaths in the Flanders Fields region of Belgium. Do you incorporate this symbolism as well?


It will be. At the end of the show we’re going to have a special arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” There is a recording of him reciting the famous poem “The Fields of Flanders.” Somehow we’re going to incorporate a performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with images of the poppy fields. We actually have some poppy confetti that will come down to bring a sense of peace and unity at the very end of the show for all the lives lost, not just the American lives.


Last year, as an extension of the Tattoo, you started a bagpipe competition on Scope Plaza. Is this continuing in 2017?


We’re going to do it again in the same basic format just on Saturday. It will begin at 10 AM and conclude at 6 PM with a mass piping display and awards ceremony.  It’ll all be on the Scope Plaza.

Last year we had Grade 1 and Grade 2 bands. This year we have Grade 2 and 3. The advantage to having the Grade 1s last year is that we were hearing the best in the world. The advantage with the Grade 3 this year is that we’ll have a lot more of them.

Last year we had a total of eight bands. This year we’ll have 14.

Each band does two performances. One is a very traditional set of Highland music. Then they do a medley set where they have a lot more freedom. They’re judged on each of those by a panel of four judges. Our judges come from all over the world.


I imagine in the back of your mind there is a plan to expand the bagpipe competition and produce a Highland games. What are your future plans?


Definitely. We’re taking another step this year. Of course we’ve got the Hullabaloo so you’ve got outdoor activities, Celtic music, and beer. This year, on Sunday morning, we’re going to do a Highland Strongman Competition. That’s in partnership with the Brute Strength Gym. It’ll start at 10 AM. It’s free and open to the public on the green space across from Scope Plaza. You’ll see traditional events like caber toss, stone throw, and an American take on it – a keg toss.

The competitors will be either semi-professional or professional athletes from the Highland Gamers circuit.