Monday, April 17, 2023

Folk Song for April 2024: A Man's a Man For A' That

“A Man’s a Man for A’ That” was written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. (Alternate titles are “Is There Honest Poverty” and “For A' That and A' That.” )

Like other poems by Burns, it was intended to be sung, and when Burns sent it for publication (in 1795), he included a tune based on “Lady Macintosh’s Reel,” which he had also used for earlier songs (including “I am a Bard of No Regard”). The song was soon translated into other languages, including German and French (scroll down to find the poem). It became widely known because of its message of equality, especially during the European uprisings of the nineteenth century.

We have included the original lyrics, and also a version in more standard English that was published in the 1840’s.

Understanding the Words

The lyrics are written in “light Scottish dialect,” meaning that, with a bit of attention, most of the words can be understood by English speakers outside of Scotland.  One of the few words whose meaning cannot be guessed by context is “coof,” which means a dunce or a fool (maybe a “goof?”). “Hodden grey” is a homespun cloth. A guinea was a gold coin.

But what does “for a’ that” mean?  It depends on the context. The closest current phrase might be “in spite of everything”; but the phrase can also be used to mean “et cetera,” for instance in the line “His ribband, star, an’ a’ that.” The German translation uses the phrase “trotz alledem,” and in French it is “après tout.”

The Lyrics

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 tho’ 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 mauna 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,

   May bear the gree, an’ a’ that.

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

   It’s comin’ yet, for a’ that,

That Man to Man, the warld o’er,

   Shall brithers be for a’ that.


Simplified Lyrics

 Is there, for honest poverty,

                That hangs his head, and all that?

The coward slaves, we pass him by,

                We dare be poor for all that,

For all that and all that,

                Our toil’s obscure, and all that,

The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,

                The man’s the gold for all that.


What though on homely fare we dine,

                Wear hodden gray, and all that?

Give tools their silks, and knaves their wine,

                A man’s a man, for all that;

For all that, and all that;

                Their tinsel show, and all that;

The honest man, though e’er so poor,

                Is king of men, for all that.


You see yon fellow called a lord,

                Who struts and stares and all that?

Though hundreds worships at his word,

                He’s but a dunce for all that;

For all that, and all that;

                For all that, and all that;

The man of independent mind,

                He looks and laughs at all that.


A prince can make a belted knight,

                A marquis, duke, and all that;

But an honest man’s above his might,

                Good faith has he for all that;

Their dignities, and all that;

                For all that, and all that;

The pith and sense and pride of worth

                Are higher ranks than all that.


Then let us pray that come it man,

                As come it will for all that,

That sense and worth; o’er all the earth,

                May bear the palm; and all that;

For all that, and all that,

                It’s coming yet for all that,

That man to man, the world all o’er,

                Shall brothers be for all that.


Video Links

Here is a 1975 recording by The McCalmans.

And here is Ian F. Benzie singing, with a video showing scenes of Scottish life and artwork.

 American users may be particularly interested in this recording by folk singer Earl Robinson, from his 1963 album Songs for Political Action.

Finally, we present Sheena Wellington singing "A Man's a Man For A' That" at the Opening of Parliament in 1999. Advisory member Leslie Laurio comments, “it makes one proud to be Scottish! (And I'm not Scottish.)”

Our helpful intro post is sure to liven up your folk song adventures.

For more information on our folk songs, and for Amazon affiliate 
links to purchase individual songs, see our AO Folk Songs page.
These affiliate links help support AmblesideOnline.

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