“You’re a Better Man Than I”

The turbulent ’60s spawned an incredible tsunami of protest music — protesting the war and inequality on numerous fronts: race, religion, and gender. We remember music from Bob Dylan: “The Data of Emmett Till” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”; Nina Simone: “Mississippi Goddamn” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”; Pete Seeger: “If I Had a Hammer”; The Impressions: “We’re a Winner”; James Brown: “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself)” and “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud”; Janis Ian: “Society’s Child”; and Sly and the Family Stone: “Everyday People,” just a few of countless examples.

 

There is one song rarely if ever mentioned on lists of great protest songs of the ’60s. Here are the lyrics:

Can you judge a man
By the way he wears his hair?
Can you read his mind
By the clothes that he wears?
Can you see a bad man
By the pattern on his tie?

[Chorus:]
Then Mister you’re a better man than I
Yeah Mister You’re a better man than I
Oh Mister You’re a better man than I
Yeah Mister You’re a better man than I

Could you tell a wise man
By the way he speaks or spells?
Is this more important
Than the stories that he tells?
And call a man a fool
If for wealth he doesn’t strive

[Chorus]

Could you condemn a man
If your faith he doesn’t hold?
Say the colour of his skin
Is the colour of his soul?
Or could you say if men
For king and country all must die?

[Chorus]

The song was penned by brothers Mike and Brian Hugg and appeared as the first song on side one of Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds, with Jeff Beck in the lead guitar chair. It was the flip side of the British single “Shapes of Things”; for whatever reason, it was not on the B-side of the U.S. release (“New York City Blues”). 

The Yardbirds at the time were: Keith Relf, vocals, harmonica, acoustic guitar, percussion; Jeff Beck,  lead guitar (Side 1); Eric Clapton, lead guitar (Side 2); Chris Dreja, rhythm guitar; Paul Samwell-Smith, bass guitar, backing vocals, musical director; and Jim McCarty, drums, backing vocals. Beck was replacing Clapton, and subsequently Jimmy Page would replace Beck.

There were various single sleeves for the release across Europe:

In addition to the brilliant lyrics, it was a superbly constructed tune, at first reminiscent of folk songs of the era before ramping up for each chorus, not to mention Beck’s incredible solo.

 

Sadly, the song is just as relevant today as it was 55 years ago. Will we ever learn?

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