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Flash Company / The Yellow Handkerchief / Myrtle Tree

[ Roud 954 ; Ballad Index K360 ; VWML GG/1/7/365 , RoudFS/S144833 , RVW2/12/3/243 ; Bodleian Roud 954 ; trad.]

Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger: Travellers' Songs from England and Scotland Roy Palmer: Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams Frank Purlsow: The Wanton Seed Steve Roud, Julia Bishop: The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs

Eli Durrant sang The Yellow Handkerchief at The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, on 10 October 1953. This recording by Peter Kennedy was included in 2014 on the Topic anthology The Barley Mow (The Voice of the People Volume 26).

George ‘Pop’ Maynard sang I Once Loved a Young Man on 18 May 1960 at the Cherry Tree, Copthorne. This recording made by Brian Matthews was included on 2000 on Maynard's Musical Traditions anthology Down the Cherry Tree.

Caroline Hughes sang The False-Hearted Lover, The Blue Jacket, and One I Had a Colour to Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker in 1963 and 1966. All three versions were included in 2014 on her Musical Traditions anthology Sheep-Crook and Black Dog. Rod Stradling noted on the first version:

This is just about recognisable as a version of the ubiquitous Flash Company / Yellow Handkerchief song, even though all Mrs Hughes’ verses can also be found in other popular songs.

and on the second one:

Steve Roud says this is enough like Flash Company to satisfy him; who am I to argue?

Cyril Poacher sang Flash Company in Blaxhall, Suffolk, very probably at the Blaxhall Ship Inn, in 1964-5. This recording by Neil Lanham was included in ca 2000 on Lanham's anthology Songs from the Idiom of the People of Blaxhall. Another recording from the Blaxhall Ship Inn in 1972 made by Keith Summers was included in 2007 on the Musical Traditions anthology of Keith Summers recordings, A Story to Tell. Cyril Poacher also sang Flash Company to Tony Engle and Keith Summers at home on Grove Farm, Blaxhall, Suffolk in August or September 1974. This recording was published in the following year on his Topic album of traditional songs from Suffolk, The Broomfield Wager. Another home recording made by Ginette Dunn on 10 September 1974 was included in 1999 on his Musical Traditions anthology Plenty of Thyme. Rod Stradling noted:

Flash Company was popular all over East Anglia. Cyril Poacher learnt it from [Eli] Durrant of Blaxhall—and we heard it in the repertoires of at least six singers in that area in the late 1960s. The song was first noted in Limerick in the 1850's and was still well known recently, not only in East Anglia, but also among Travellers throughout southern England. Phoebe Smith can be heard singing her version on Veteran’s recent The Yellow Handkerchief, as can Percy Webb on the record of the same name, Flash Company.

Despite being really nothing more than a collection of floating verses, the song maintains a similar form all over East Anglia—and is unusual in that the verse:

In the middle of the ocean, there shall grow a willow (myrtle) tree,
If ever I prove false, my love, to the one that loves me.

… which is common to almost all other versions (and a good many other songs besides) is rarely found here.

Cecilia Costello sang I Once Loved a Young Man in 1967 to Charles Parker and Pam Bishop. This recording was included in 2014 on her Musical Traditions anthology Old Fashioned Songs. Rod Stradling noted:

This is a version of the Flash Company / Yellow Handkerchief family of songs, which was first noted in Limerick in the 1850s, so Mrs Costello may have learned it from her father. It is almost exclusive to Suffolk these days, although there are a small number of sightings along the south coast—Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset. We heard it in the repertoires of at least six singers in Suffolk in the late 1960s. The song was still well known recently, not only in East Anglia, but also among Travellers throughout southern England. Although it has 92 Roud entries, most of these relate to book or broadside publications, and it seems to be known only in England, except for one US and one Canadian entry.

Percy Webb sang Flash Company in a mono recording made at The King's Head, Upper St. Islington, in 1968. It was published in 1974 as title track of the Topic album of traditional singers from Suffolk and Essex, Flash Company. Mike Yates noted:

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 [ VWML GG/1/7/365 ] and Walter Ford found it in Surrey the following summer [ VWML RoudFS/S144833 ] . 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. A recording from the King's Head Folk Club on 8 January 1969 was included in 2012 on the Musical Traditions anthology King's Head Folk Club. Her first album's liner notes said:

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. The track was also included in 1990 on her compilation Aspects. This video clip is from 1980's ITV “A Toast to St Patrick”:

Bob Roberts sang The Yellow Handkerchief, in a recording made in his cottage on the Isle of Wight, on his 1981 Solent album Breeze for a Bargeman.

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.

Geoff Ling from Blaxhall sang Flash Company in a John Howson recording on the ca 1987-9 Veteran Tapes cassette Songs Sung in Suffolk 2. This track was also included in 2000 on the Veteran anthology CD Songs Sung in Suffolk. Howson noted:

This song, which is probably of Irish origin, has been one of the most popular pub songs in East Suffolk, often called The Yellow Handkerchief and nearly always sung to the tune of the Brave Princess Royal. Two fine versions can be heard by Mary Ann Haynes on A Century of Song, and by Phoebe Smith on The Yellow Handkerchief. I first heard it sung by old ‘Stalks’ Abbot in Brundish Crown and Geoff's performance, like his, is a lesson on how to pace a song properly. It dates back to the nineteenth century when it was printed on broadsides. This doesn't seem a very widespread song (I have never heard it sung even in West Suffolk), although it does appear in the Gardiner manuscript, collected at the beginning of this century in Southampton; and Vaughan Williams came across it in Herefordshire in 1909 as The Myrtle Tree. Geoff learned it at the age of fourteen from his Uncle Abey (Abraham Ling) who used to sing in Blaxhall Ship in the 1930's.

Norma Waterson sang Flash Company in 1996 on Waterson:Carthy's second album Common Tongue. Martin Carthy noted:

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.

Maddy Prior sang Yellow Handkerchief in 2003 on her Park CD Lionhearts. This track was also included in 2005 on her Park anthology Collections.

Chris Bartram sang Take This Yellow Handkerchief on his 2005 album of traditional songs from England, Yorkie.

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

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 [ VWML RVW2/12/3/243 ] . 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 of gypsy songs and music from South-East England, Here's Luck to a Man.

Jane and Amanda Threlfall sang Yellow Handkerchief on their 2008 CD Sweet Nightingale. They noted:

Sung by the gypsy singer Phoebe Smith, from Woodbridge in Suffolk, on the 1998 Veteran CD of the same title, from the original recording by Mike Yates.

Mike Yates, a past editor of the EFDSS Folk Music Journal, recorded a number of traditional singers who were featured by Topic on their seminal archive / field recording LPs which they began releasing during the nineteen seventies.

And for other traditional music and song from East Anglia, let Veteran be your guide (no advertising, please).

Ian King sang Flash Company in 2010 on his Fledg'ling album Panic Grass & Fever Few.

Hladowski & Joynes sang Flash Company on their 2012 album The Wild Wild Berry.

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

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 19 February 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.

David Stacey sang Yellow Handkerchief in 2015 on his Musical Traditions album Good Luck to the Journeyman. Rod Stradling noted:

This is a song that is almost exclusive to Suffolk these days—we heard it in the repertoires of at least six singers there in the late 1960s—although there are a small number of sightings along the south coast—Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset. The song was first noted in Limerick in the 1850s and was still well known recently, not only in East Anglia, but also among Travellers throughout southern England. Roud has 97 instances of the song, 27 of which are sound recordings.

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.

Offa Rex (Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists) sang Flash Company in 2017 on their Nonesuch album The Queen of Hearts.

Sam Lee & Notes Inégales sang Flash Company on their 2018 album Van Diemen's Land.

Lyrics

Caroline Hughes sings The False-Hearted Lover

Oh, but once I had a colour,
Well it were just like a rose;
Oh, but now I’m so pale as
The lily what do grow.

Oh, there’s me and my baby,
Now contented we’ll be;
Well, I will try and forget you,
Oh, as you forgot me.

Like the flowers all in the garden
When the beauty’s all gone;
Can’t you see just what I’m come to
By a-loving that one?

Oh now, all you young ladies,
You take warning by me;
Never let a young man
Get one inch above your knee.

He will kiss and he’ll coax you,
And he’ll call you his love;
And a false hearted ‘ceitful,
Will bid you farewell.

Well, there’s love on the ocean,
And there’s love on dry land;
Long as breath’s in my body
I’ll still love that one.

Caroline Hughes sings The Blue Jacket

Oh, it’s fiddling and dancing
Oh bein’ all my delight
But if ever I prove false
To, oh, the young man I love.

First I loved William
Oh, but then I loved Tom
But then I loved Johnny
What a clever young man.

With his white cotton stockings
And his low ankle boots
For he wears a blue jacket
Wheresomever he goes.

Caroline Hughes sings One I Had a Colour

Oh, but once I had a colour, well it was just like a rose,
Oh, but now I’m so pale as the lily what do grow.

Oh, there’s me and my baby, now contented we’ll be;
Well, I will try and forget you, oh, as you forgot me.

Like the flowers all in the garden, a-when their beauty’s all gone,
Can’t you see just what I’m come to by a-loving that one?

Oh, now all you young ladies, you take warning by me,
Never let a young man get one inch above your knee.

He will kiss and he’ll coax you, and he’ll call you his love,
And the false-hearted ‘ceitful will bid you farewell.

Well, there’s love on the ocean, and there’s love on dry land,
Long as breath’s in my body I’ll still love that one.

Cyril Poacher sing Flash Company

Once I loved a young girl as I loved my life
And to keep her in flash company has ruined my life.
Flash company, my boy, like a great many more,
If it hadn't been for flash company, I should never have been so poor.

Chorus (after each verse):
So it's take the yellow handkerchief in remembrance of me,
And tied it 'round your neck, love, in flash company.
Flash company, my boy, like a great many more,
If it hadn't been for flash company, I should never have been so poor.

Once I had a colour as red as a rose,
But now it's as pale as the lily that grows,
Like a flower in the garden, with all my colour gone,
Oh you see what I am coming to through loving that one.

Oh it's fiddling and a-dancing was all my delight,
And to keep her in flash company has ruined my life,
Has ruined my life, like a great many more,
If it hadn't been for flash company, I should never have been so poor.

Cecilia Costello sings I Once Loved a Young Man

I once loved a young man
As dear as my life,
And ofttimes he told me
He’d make me his wife.

But now with another girl
He loves better than me,
He’s left me with a baby
To weep and to pine.

But me and my baby,
Content we will be,
And we’ll try to forget him,
As he forgot me.

But me and my baby,
No rest can I find,
For the thoughts of that young man
Lies deep on my mind.

I once had a colour
As red as the rose,
But now it has faded,
Like the lily that grows.

Like the flower in yon garden,
My beauty’s all gone.
Don’t you see what I’ve come to
Through loving that one.

So all you young maidens,
Take warning by me;
And never trust no man
Of any degree.

They’ll kiss you, they’ll court you,
Yes, they swear they’ll be true,
And the very next moment,
They’ll bid you adieu.

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.

Geoff Ling sings Flash Company

Once I loved a young girl as I loved my life,
And through keeping flash company has ruined my life,
Has ruined my life, like a great many more.
If it hadn't have been for flash company, I'd never have been so poor.

Chorus (after each verse):
So it's take the yellow handkerchief in remembrance of me.
And tie it around my neck, my love in flash company.
Flash company, my boys, like a great many more,
If it hadn't 've been flash company, I should never've been so poor.

For it's once I had a colour as red as the rose,
But now I'm as pale as the lily that grows.
Like a flower in the garden, when all my colour's gone,
Can't you see what I'm coming to, through loving that one.

For it's fiddling and dancing has been my delight,
And along with those flash girls I spent every night.
Now my money's all gone and my love lingers on.
Can't you see what I'm coming to through loving that one.

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.

David Stacey sings Yellow Handkerchief

Well, now once I loved a woman
Oh as dear as I love my life
I thought in my own heart
I would make her my wife,
With her white cotton stockings
And her high ankle shoes
And she wears a yellow handkerchief,
Oh wherever she goes.

So now take this yellow handkerchief
In remembrance of me
Wear it round your pretty little neck
All in flash company
All in flash company, me boys,
Like a great many more
If it hadn’t been for flash company
I would never have been so poor.

For it’s a-jigging and a-dancing
That was all my delight
A-staying out late, me boys,
It’s been the ruin of me quite
Yes, a-staying out late, me boys,
Like a great many more
If it hadn’t been for flash company
I would never have been so poor.

For now once I had a colour
It was red as any rose
But now I’m as pale
As the lily that blows,
Like the lily in the garden
All my colour has gone,
Now you see what I am coming to
All for loving that one.

So now come all you pretty little flash girls
And a warning take by me
Don’t you build a swallow’s nest upon a willow tree
For the green leaves they will wither
And the shoots they’ll all decay
And the beauty of a young girl
It soon dies and fades away.

Acknowledgements

Transcription from Norma Waterson's singing by Garry Gillard.