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A Man’s a Man for A’ That

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Is There for Honest Poverty, commonly known as A Man’s a Man for A’ That, is a 1795 Scots song by Robert Burns, famous for its expression of egalitarian ideas of society, which may be seen as expressing the ideas of liberalism that arose in the 18th century. [Wikipedia]

Ewan MacColl sang A Man’s a Man for A’ That in 1959 on his Folkways album Songs of Robert Burns. The album’s liner notes commented:

“A great critic … on songs says that love & wine are the exclusive themes for song-writing. The following is on neither subject & consequently is no Song; but will be allowed, I think, to be two or three pretty good prose thoughts, inverted into rhyme.” Thus Burns wrote in sending along this song to George Thomson. Fortunately Burns followed his impulses, rather than the strictures of the “great critic”, and found political matter also to be a suitable theme for songs.

The Exiles sang For A’ That and A’ That in 1966 on their Topic album Freedom, Come All Ye. Gordon McCulloch commented in the sleeve notes:

No record of protest songs sung by Scots would be complete without a Burns song. Scotland’s greatest poet was, of course, a prolific writer of songs, political and otherwise. Robert Chambers, who detested this particular song, unwillingly paid it the highest compliment when he wrote, “this song may be said to embody all the false philosophy of Burns’ time, and of his own mind”.

Ian Campbell sang A Man’s a Man for A’ That in 1968 on his Transatlantic album Tam o’ Shanter. This track was also included in 2005 on The Ian Campbell Folk Group’s anthology The Times They Are A-Changin’. He noted:

A Man’s a Man for A’ That is perhaps Burns’ most widely known and most loved song and, along with My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose the one which most commonly comes to mind at mention of the poet’s name. Certainly to many Scots it represents the very best of what Burns stands for as a poet, as a Scot, and as a man.

Danny Spooner sang A Man’s a Man in 1986 on his Sandstock album I Got This One From…. He noted:

The poem A Man’s a Man was taught to me in the first place by a Scottish friend of my mother, Mrs McColl. I later got the tune from my old mate Gordon McIntyre. One of the finest examples of Robert Burns’ penmanship, this song should be mankind’s national anthem.

I include it because apart from being a smashing song, it’s a great favourite of my ma-in-law whose Scots father often quoted Burns and she, like him, lives by this ethic. Good on yer, Jess.

Five Hand Reel sang A Man’s a Man for A’ That as the title track of their 1977 album For A’ That.

Andy M. Stewart sang Is There for Honest Poverty (For A’ That) on his 1989 album Songs of Robert Burns. The liner notes commented:

This world-renowned production was composed in January, 1795. Burns says, “This song is mine, all except the chorus,” and his name is attached to it in the publication Scots Musical Museum. It is simply the Bard’s Song in the Jolly Beggars, omitting the first two verses, and substituting for these the present opening verse and fresh chorus.

The poet’s observations on sending it were as follows: “A great critic (Aikin) on songs says that love and wine are exclusive themes for songwriting. The following is on neither subject and consequently is no song; but will be allowed, I think, to contain two or three pretty good prose thoughts inverted into rhyme. I do not give it for your book, but merely by way of ‘Vive la bagatelle’, for the piece is not really poetry.”

(From Scottish Songs Illustrated, published 1890, Adam and Gee, Middle Street, West Smithfield, London)

Rod Paterson sang A Man’s a Man for A’ That in 1996 on his Greentrax CD of Robert Burns songs, Songs From the Bottom Drawer.

Ian F. Benzie sang A Man’s a Man for A’ That in 1998 on the Linn anthology The Complete Songs of Robert Burns Volume 5.

Sheena Wellington sang A Man’s a Man at the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, on 1 July 1999. This live recording was included in 2003 on her Greentrax CD Hamely Fare and in 2014 on the Greentrax anthology Favourite Scottish Songs. Another live recording from Celtic Connections at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in January 2001 was included in 2002 on the festival anthology Scots Women.

Old Blind Dogs, with Jim Malcolm in lead, sang Is There for Honest Poverty in 2001 on their CD Fit?. Susie Malcolm noted:

One of Robert Burns’ most celebrated songs and long an anthem of the political left. The background to this musical manifesto was the French Revolution which caused a great intellectual stir throughout Scottish society.

Jim Malcolm also sang A Man’s a Man for A’ That on his 2007 album of songs of Robert Burns, Acquaintance, and in 2010 on his Robert Burns DVD Bard Hair Day. He noted:

This wonderful and powerful musical manifesto is quite difficult to learn because it is a series of ideas rather than a story. It is the song I most often get my words muddled up with. Often when singing it with Old Blind Dogs the boys would be singing the right harmony to my wrong lead, which they would slag me about. My claim to fame is that I’ve sung this song in the company of princes Charles and William at a royal garden party at Holyrood Palace. Singing “A prince can make a belted night…but an honest man’s abune his might” felt very cheeky. This is next on my political richter scale only to being allowed to sing my song “Vote a Tory out” live on BBC radio before the 1997 general election. (And it worked!)

This video shows Jim and Susie Malcolm singing A Man’s a Man for A’ That at a Seattle Folklore Society concert in February 2020:

Ed Miller sang A Man’s a Man in 2009 on his album of songs written or collected by Robert Burns, Lyrics of Gold.

Emily Smith and Jamie McClennan sang A Man’s a Man for A’ That on their 2009 album of Robert Burns songs, Adoon Winding Nith.

Ewan McLennan sang A Man’s a Man in 2010 on his first Fellside CD, Rags & Robes.

Johnny Campbell sang A Man’s a Man for A’ That on his 2014 EP Robbie Burns (Volume 1).

Mairearad Green played A Man’s a Man for A’ That on small pipes for a download single released on Robert Burns’ 2021 birthday.

Iona Fyfe sang A Man’s a Man in 2023 on her download single A Man’s a Man. She noted:

An interpretation of A Man’s a Man written by Robert Burns. I’ve used an alternate melody which goes to the text Be Guid to Me as Lang’s I’m Here which is found in John Ord’s Bothy Songs and Ballads (1930).


Is There for Honest Poverty

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave—we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hodden grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.