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"an original based on an episode on West Fourth Street in the Village. Bob had seen a policeman jab a dead man with his club to stir him."John Bauldie further stated that
(Robert Shelton as quoted by John Bauldie in liner notes, The Bootleg Series, p. 6.)
"A possible source for the song's striking image, and indeed for the song's verse structure, might be found in Bertolt Brecht's poem "Litany Of Breath."
This sentimental ballad harks back to an earlier era. It was published in songsters at least as early as 1877. Its authorship is confused in that Fred J. Mackley claimed it around 1877, but Walter Phoenix claimed both words and music in 1880. Folklorists began to cite this ballad in 1925. It is interesting that there were a number of hillbilly recordings, but all of them were before 1930. Just why it did not continue its popularity among hillbilly artists is not clear.
Ed Kahn, liner notes for Bear Family Records set "Darby & Tarlton -- Complete Recordings", p. 27.
Lyrics (as reprinted ibid.).
While strolling along in a city's gay throng
I met a poor boy who was singing a song
Although he was singing he wanted for bread
Although he was smiling, he wished himself dead
Oh, as cold blew the blast and down came the snow
He had no mother and no place to go
No mother to guide him in a place he lies low
Just in the cold street was poor Beggar Joe
The fires had gone out and the clock has struck one
Along came a policeman whose duty was done
It seems like the tramp, some heaven they dread
As though he was seekin' some wave of the dead
"Praise God, what is this?" the policeman did cry
For our poor Beggar Joe in the streets he had died
With his face turned to Heaven all covered with snow
Dead in the cold street was poor Beggar Joe.