Verse 1: 'I'm Joseph Tuck. the tailor's son, / A poor but honest blade, sirs; / And for these five and twenty years, / A sorry life I've led, sirs, / But as I want some customers, / I'll tell you what my trade is; / I'm barber, blacksmith, parish-clerk, / And man midwife to the ladies. / Bow wow, &c'.
As the verse quoted above suggests, 'Joseph Tuck' is about a shopkeeper who holds a variety of other jobs and roles in his community. Similar characters were quite commonplace in smaller Scottish burghs, from their medieval roots right up to the twentieth century. The merchant class, which included shopkeepers, was traditionally the most powerful group in burghs and tended to dominate local councils. Often a merchant might be able to secure himself a council position and several other paid duties in addition to his main job. Such a figure is the subject of John Galt's Ayrshire novel of 1822, 'The Provost'.
Early ballads were dramatic or humorous narrative songs derived from folk culture that predated printing. Originally perpetuated by word of mouth, many ballads survive because they were recorded on broadsides. Musical notation was rarely printed, as tunes were usually established favourites. The term 'ballad' eventually applied more broadly to any kind of topical or popular verse.
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