Music and Bonfire Night

You may wonder what’s not to like about Bonfire Night? Watching a bonfire together is very cosy and the fireworks give it that extra oomph; but there is also the other business of burning the guy – Guy Fawkes. One of thirteen men who conspired to blow up Parliament in cold blood.

You may hear youngsters chanting on the 5th November:

Remember, remember,
The fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot;
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

There are another two verses to this traditional rhyme from the Seventeenth century, which are much more rarely heard.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;

By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.

Holla boys, Holla boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

And what should we do with him? Burn him!

The origins of Bonfire Night are gruesome. Thirteen disgruntled Catholics decided to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the 5th of November 1605. As it was the State Opening of Parliament, everyone of importance would be there including King James I and his family. The plot was discovered at the last moment and the first bonfires of thanksgiving were lit. Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators paid the full penalty of being hung, drawn and quartered for their crime.

As well as bonfires of thanksgiving there were songs of thanksgiving as well. This is allegedly the earliest ditty on the Gunpowder plot, and was very likely sung round the bonfire.

Of Catesby, Faux and Garnet,
A story  I’le you tell-a,
And of a Rare Plott,
Ne’re to be forgott,
And eke how it befell-a.

All on the 4th of November,
The Papists they had a driff-a
Quite to destroy
Brave England’s joy,
To decide all our Quarrells,
Nay they had don’t as sure as a Gur-a

O varlets that esteeme noe more
3 kingdoms than 3 shillings!
It were a Goode deed
To hang’m with speed, –
Oh out vppoj them villaines!

But these Papists their designs
We care not for a louse-a,
For fit as it was,
It soe came to passe
The plot was blown up, not the house-a

For our king he went to Parliament
To meet his Noble Peers-a,
But if he had knowne
Where he should have blown,
He durst not have gon for his Eares-a

Then, “Powder I smell”, quote our gracious king
(now our king was an excellent smeller),
And lower and lower,
Quoth the king, “I smell powder”,
And downe he run into the celler.

And when he came the celler into,
And was the danger amid-a,
He found that the traine
Had not been in vaine,
Had he not come downe as he did-a

Then the Noble-men that there stood by
And heard the words of the king-a,
“Ah, my soul, if the Fire
Had come a little higher,
“Twould have made vs all flye without wings-a!

British Library. Additional Ms. 18220 BLa20*161. No tune cited in manuscript.

[Editor’s note: Am particularly amused by King James apparent resemblance to a sniffer dog. Perhaps this explains the Stuart family’s love of spaniels??]

Sniffer monarch?
Sniffer dog

Guy became a bit of a folk hero, as witness this version of events from the nineteenth century sung to the tune Bow Wow Wow.

I sing a doleful tragedy – Guy Fawkes, the Prince of Sinisters,
Who once blew up the House of Lords, the King and his ministers;
That is – he would have blown them up, and folks will ne’er forget him –
His will was good to do the deed – that is, if they’d have let him!
Bow, wow, wow. Tol lol de riddle lol de rol lol de ray.

The Meltonians / R.B. Peake. London, 1837 (Nn.16.166).

In 1997 The Levellers released a song called What a Beautiful Day, which mentions Guy Fawkes:

What a beautiful day (hey hey)
I’m the king of all time
And nothing is impossible
In my powerful mind.
It was on the fifth of November, when time it went back
Some say that that’s impossible, but you and I we never looked back
And wasn’t it incredible, so beautiful and above all
Just to see the fuse get lit this time
To light a real bonfire, for all time.

Mouth to Mouth. The Levellers, 1997.

The song appears to celebrate revolution. Looking on Google this song seems to inspire many different reactions.

We don’t just celebrate Bonfire Night with a great roaring fire, we have fireworks as well. Fireworks have gunpowder in them – see the connection? Many modern songs celebrate fireworks including a great song simply called Firework by Katy Perry.

Katy Perry and Fireworks

I must admit that fireworks are the icing on the cake for Bonfire night and have probably been the main attraction for years.

Have an enjoyable Bonfire Night.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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