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Flash Company / The Yellow Handkerchief / Myrtle Tree

[ Roud 954 ; Ballad Index K360 ; Bodleian Roud 954 ; trad.]

Percy Webb sang Flash Company in a mono recording at The King's Head, Upper St. Islington in 1968. This was published in 1974 as title track of the Topic album Flash Company: Traditional Singers from Suffolk and Essex. Mike Yates commented in the album's sleeve notes:

Flash Company was first noted in Limerick, sung to the tune of The Green Bushes, on the mid 1850's. Most collected versions seem somehow incomplete, suggesting that at some time or other, an unknown broadside printer had assembled a number of loosely related verses in order to form a “new” song, thus fixing its present form. Some singers call it The Yellow Handkerchief, others First I Loved Thomas. Dr George Gardiner collected a version in Hampshire in 1906 and Walter Ford found it in Surrey the following summer. For some reason the song has survived best in East Anglia. Also among gipsies in Southern England, many of whom can recall part, if not all, of it. As will be readily noticed, this version shares its tune with Bob Hart's set of The Bold Princess Royal.

Phoebe Smith sang The Yellow Handkerchief at home in Melton, Woodbridge, Suffolk, to Paul Carter and Frank Purslow in 1969. This recording was released a year later on her Topic album Once I Had a True Love, and was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology My Father's the King of the Gypsies (The Voice of the People Volume 11). Another recording made by Peta Webb in 1970 was published in 2001 as the title track of her Veteran CD The Yellow Handkerchief. Her first album's liner notes commented:

This song, also known as Flash Company, seems nowadays to be remembered only in East Anglia, although it was collected in Hampshire, Sussex and elsewhere early in the century. It always approximates to the same form: the two essential verses about singing and dancing and the yellow handkerchief (often used also as a chorus), with sometimes a third describing the “flash lad’s” mode of dress, plus one or two “floaters”, as here, usually associated with such songs as The Cuckoo or The False Young Man. Phoebe’s tune is a much used Irish Come-All-Ye mainly associated with Pretty Susan, the Pride of Kildare.

June Tabor sang Flash Company in 1980 on her Topic album with Martin Simpson, A Cut Above. This track was also included on her compilation Aspects.

Isla St Clair sang The Yellow Handkerchief in 1981 on her BBC television series soundtrack The Song and the Story.

Linda Adams sang Flash Company as the title track of the 1986 Fellside anthology Flash Company. She gave “a field recording of the wonderful Phoebe Smith” as her source,

Norma Waterson sang Flash Company in 1996 on Waterson:Carthy's second album Common Tongue. Martin Carthy commented in the album's sleeve notes:

Percy Webb was a favourite singer of Norma's, and of many others too. She and many other women loved his spunky way of singing and the fact that he remained a very sexy man right up until he died at a ripe old age. Flash Company was a favourite song of his and was regarded by many as his anthem. Norma's way of singing it owes a lot to him, but the tune actually comes from the Southampton singer Job Read who met the collector George Gardiner in 1906.

Bellowhead recorded Flash Company in 2006 for their CD Burlesque and performed it live on September 26, 2007 at Shepherds Bush Empire, London; this concert was issued as the DVD Live at Shepherds Bush Empire. The CD liner notes comment:

Also known as The Yellow Handkerchief, the song dates back at least to nineteenth-century broadsides printed in London. It was at one time very popular in parts of Suffolk, and Ralph Vaughan Williams came across it in Herefordshire in 1909. George Gardiner collected a couple of versions in Hampshire, one of which was published by Frank Purslow in The Wanton Seed (London: EFDSS, 1968), p.43.

Our melody and text are based on a recording by Mary Ann Haynes made by Mike Yates in Brighton, Sussex in 1975, issued on the English Folk Dance and Song Society album A Century of Song. Haynes (née Milest) was born into a gypsy family in 1905, in a caravan behind the Coach and Horses in Portsmouth. After many itinerant years she settled in Brighton, working as a flower-seller to support her family after the death of her husband. It is probable that she learned most of her large repertoire from other travellers, and her son Ted was also recorded by Mike Yates. The gypsy tradition is represented on a number of recordings including Yates' 2003 compilation Here's Luck to a Man: Gypsy Songs and Music from South-East England.

The Outside Track sang Flash Company in 2012 as the title track of their CD Flash Company. They commented in their liner notes:

Legendary singers June Tabor and Norma Waterson popularised this traditional song in England in the '80s. The first recorded account of this song was in Limerick in the 1850s. An older woman looks back on her colourful life. With the clarity of hindsight, this song captures her sentiments of nostalgia, regret and wisdom. Additional words are by Norah [Rendell]. Mairi [Rankin] plays hints of Jerry Holland's beautiful slow air, My Cape Breton Home.

Andy Turner sang Flash Company as the February 19, 2012 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week, referring to Percy Webb's and to June Tabor and Martin Simpson's version.

Bella Hardy learned Yellow Handkerchief from the singing of Phoebe Smith and recorded it in 2013 for her CD Battleplan.

Lucy Farrell with Eliza Carthy, Bella Hardy and Kate Young sang this song as Myrtle Tree in 2013 on their CD Laylam, giving the Vaughan Williams collection as their source. He collected it in July 1909 from Mrs Ellen Powell of Weobley, Hereford­shire.

Nick Hart sang Yellow Handkerchief in 2017 on his CD Nick Hart Sings Eight English Folk Songs. He noted:

From the singing of Phoebe Smith, a Gypsy singer from Suffolk. Everyone does this one, and for good reason,

The Norfolk Broads sang Flash Company on their 2017 CD In the Valley of the Flowers.

Lyrics

Phoebe Smith sings The Yellow Handkerchief

Once I had a colour as red as a rose
Now my colour has fade like the lily that grow
Now my colour has fade like the lily that do grow
And if it wasn't for flash company I should never been so poor.

So you take this yellow handkerchief in a remembrance of me
And tie that round your neck, my love, in flash company
Flash company's been the ruin of me and the ruin of me quite
If it wasn't for flash company I should never been so poor.

Now it's singing and a dancing sure that is my delight
Flash company being the ruin of me and the ruin of me quite
Flash company being the ruin of me and a great many more
If it wasn't for flash company I should never been so poor.

Now you take a yellow handkerchief in a remembrance of me
And tie that round your neck, my love, in a flash company
Now flash company's been the ruin of me and a great many more
If it wasn't for flash company I should never been so poor.

Now its all you little flash girls take a warning by me
And never build your nest my love on the top of a tree
For the green leaves they will wither and the roots they will decade
And the beauty of a fair young maid that will soon fade away

So you take this yellow handkerchief in a remembrance of me
And tie that round your neck, my love, in your flash company
Flash company's been the ruin of me and the ruin of me quite
If it wasn't for flash company I should never been so poor.

Waterson:Carthy sing Flash Company

First I loved William and then I loved John
But now I love Thomas he's a clever young man
With his white coat and stocking and his high ankle shoe
He wears a velvet jacket like a flash lad he goes

Fiddling and dancing was all his delight
But keeping flash company has ruined him quite
Has ruined him quite and a great many more
If it hadn't have been flash company he'd never have been so poor

Take this yellow handkerchief in remembrance of me
And wear it around your neck when in flash company
Dry up your briny tears and don't look so sad
There's plenty more flash girls all around to be had

Rocks shall run to water and the sea shall run dry
If I should prove false to the lad that loves I
The sweetest strawberries shall grow in the sea
If I should prove false to the one that loves me

First I loved William and then I loved John
But now I love Thomas he's a clever young man
With his white coat and stocking and his high ankle shoe
He wears a velvet jacket like a flash lad he goes

Take this yellow handkerchief in remembrance of me
And wear it around your neck when in flash company
Dry up your briny tears and don't look so sad
There's plenty more flash girls all around to be had

Bellowhead sing Flash Company

Oh the jigging and all the dancing it was all my delight
And staying out late, my boys, been the ruin of me quite
Staying out late, my boys, like a great many more
If it hadn't have been for flash company I should never have been so poor

Once I had a colour as red as any rose
But now I'm as pale as the lily that grows
As the lily in the garden, my beauty's all gone
If it hadn't have been for flash company I should never have been so poor

So take this yellow handkerchief in remembrance of me
Tie it safely round your neck when in flash company
Flash company's been the ruin of a great many more
If it hadn't have been for flash company I should never have been so poor
If it hadn't have been for flash company I should never have been so poor

Lucy Farrell sings Myrtle Tree

First I loved Thomas, but now I love John.
Then I loved Edwin, he's a clever young man.
With his white cotton stockings and his high ankled shoes,
He wears a velvet jacket, like a flash lad he goes.

For fiddling and dancing is all my delight,
And keeping flash company has ruined me quite.
Ruined me quite, and a great many more;
If I'd not kept bad company I'd never been so poor.

Take this yellow handkerchief in remembrance of me,
And I hope you will wear it in your high company;
For in the middle of the ocean there will grow a myrtle tree
If ever I prove false to her, the girl that loves me.

Here's adieu to you judges, you are too severe;
You have banished my true love from me I declare.
May the rocks run water and the rivers run dry
If ever I prove false to the girl that loves I.

For in the middle of the ocean there will grow a myrtle tree
If ever I prove false to her, the girl that loves me.

Acknowledgements

Transcription from Norma Waterson's singing by Garry Gillard.