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The Ballad of Uncle Joe


Author Unknown

from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, December, 1866. Reprinted in Old Time Songs and Poems (date unknown).

When I was young— it seems as though
There never were such when—
There lived a man that now I know
Was just the best of men;
I'll name him "Uncle Joe,"
For so we called him then.

A poor man he, that for his bread
Must work with might and main.
The humble roof above his head
Scarce kept him from the rain;
But so his dog and he were fed,
He sought no other gain.

His steel-blue axe, it was his pride,
And over wood and wave
Its music rang out far and wide,
His strokes they were so brave;
Excepting that some neighbor died,
And then he dug his grave.

And whether it were wife or child,
An old man, or a maid,
An infant that had hardly smiled,
Or youth so lowly laid,
The yellow earth was always piled
Above them by his spade.

For spade he had, and grubbing hoe,
And hence the people said
It was not much that Uncle Joe
Should bury all the dead;
So rich and poor, and high and low,
He made them each a bed.

The funeral-bell was like a jog
Upon his wits, they say,
That made him leave his half-cut log
At any time of day,
And whistle to his brindle dog,
And light his pipe of clay.

When winter winds around him drave,
And made the snow flakes spin,
I've seen him- for he did not save
His strength, for thick nor thin—
His bare head just above the grave
That he was standing in.

His simple mind was almost dark
To school-lore, that is true;
The wisdom he had gained at work
Was nearly all he knew;
But ah, the way he made his mark
Was honest, through and through!

'Twas not among the rulers then
That he in council sat;
They used to say that with his pen
His fingers were not pat;
But he was still a gentleman
For all and all of that.

The preacher in his silken gown
Was not so well at ease
As he, with collar lopping down
And patches at his knees,
The envy of our little town,
He hadn't a soul to please;

Nor wife nor brother, chick nor child,
Nor any kith nor kin.
Perhaps the townsfolk were beguiled
And the envy was a sin,
But his look of sweetness when he smiled
Betokened joy within.

He sometimes took his holiday,
And 'twas a pleasant sight
To see him smoke his pipe of clay,
As if all the world went right,
While his brindle dog beside him lay
A-winking at the light.

He took his holiday, and so
His face with gladness shone;
But ah! I can not make you know
One bliss he held alone,
Unless the heart of Uncle Joe
Were beating in your own!

He had an old cracked violin,
And I just may whisper you
The music was so weak and thin
'Twas like to an ado,
As he drew the long bow out and in
To all the tune he knew.

From January on till June,
And back again to snow,
Or in the tender light o' the moon,
Or by the hearth-fire's glow,
To that old-fashioned, crazy tune
He made his elbow go!

Ah! then his smile would come so sweet
It brightened all the air,
And heel and toe would beat and beat
The the ground of grass was bare,
As if that little lady feet
Were dancing with him there!

His finger nails, so bruised and flat,
Would grow in this employ
To such a rosy roundless that
He almost seemed a boy,
And even the old crape on his hat
Would tremble as with joy.

So, digging graves, and chopping wood,
He spent the busy day,
And always, as a wise man should,
Kept evil thoughts at bay;
For when he could not speak the good,
He hadn't a word to say.

And so the years in shine and storm
Went by, as years will go,
Until at last his palsied arm
Could hardly draw the bow;
Until he crooked through all his form,
Much like his grubbing hoe.

And then his axe he deeply set,
And on the wall-side pegs
Hung bow and spade; no fear nor fret
That life was at the dregs,
But walked about of a warm day yet,
With his dog between his legs.

Sometimes, as one who almost grieves,
His memory would recall
The merry making Christmas-eves,
The frolic, and the ball,
Till his hands would shake like withered leaves,
And his pipe go out and fall.

Then all his face would grow as bright—
So I have oft heard say—
As if that, being lost in the night,
He saw the dawn o' the day;
As if from a churlish, chilling height
He saw the light o' the May.

One winter night the fiddle bow
His fingers ceased to tease,
And they found him by the morning glow
Beneath his dooryard trees,
Wrapped in the ermine of the snow,
And royally at ease.

What matter that the winds were wild?
He did not hear their din,
But hugging, as it were his child,
Against his grizzly chin,
The tresure of his life, he smiled,
For all was peace within.

And when they drew the vest apart
To fold the hands away
They found a picture past all art
Of painting, so they say;
And they turned the face upon the heart
And left it where it lay.

And one, a boy with golden head,
Made haste and strung full soon
The crazy viol; for he said,
Mayhap beneath the moon
They danced sometime a merry tread
To the belovéd tune.

And many an eye with tears was dim
The while his corse they bore;
No hands had ever worked for him
Since he was born before;
Nor could there come an hour so grim
That he should need them more.

The viol, ready tuned to play,
The sadly silent bow,
The axe, the pipe of yellow clay,
Are in his grave so low;
And there is nothing more to say
Of poor old Uncle Joe.