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History of Charlie on the M.T.A.

The well-known folk song about Charlie on the M.T.A. is actually entitled “M.T.A.,” which stands for Metropolitan Transit Authority, the predecessor of today’s MBTA.  The song was written as a campaign song for the 1949 Boston mayoral race of Walter A. O’Brien, Jr.  O’Brien was the candidate of the Progressive Party, and the song was meant to call attention O’Brien’s opposition to the recent fare increase, which saw subway riders charged an extra nickel to exit trains at stops above ground.  That’s the reason that the last verse of the song goes:

Now, citizens of Boston, don’t you think it is a scandal / That the people have to pay and pay? / Join Walter A. O’Brien to fight the fare increase / Get poor Charlie off that MTA!

Most of the lyrics of the song were written by Jackie Steiner, a young, O’Brien supporter and classically trained vocalist who had just discovered folk music.  Bess Hawes, another O’Brien supporter and member of a famous folk song-collecting family, contributed the song’s most intriguing verse:

Charlie’s wife comes down to the Scollay Square Station / Every day at a quarter past two / And through the open window she hands Charlie a sandwich / As his train goes rumbling through.

Hawes also chose the tune, setting the lyrics to the melody of a song she had sung as a member of the Almanac Singers called “The Train That Never Returned,” which itself was based on a Civil War-era song, “The Ship That Never Returned.”

“M.T.A.” was one of a handful recorded for the O’Brien campaign in the fall of 1949 by a group that called itself the Boston Peoples Artists at a studio on Boylston Place in downtown Boston.  Sam Berman sang the lead and played guitar; his brother Arnold played ukulele; Jackie Steiner sang backup; Bess Hawes played mandolin; and Al Katz played guitar.  Everyone chipped in on vocals for the chorus.  The song made its debut on October 24, 1949 at O’Brien campaign stops outside factory gates in South Boston and Roxbury and was immediately popular with Boston audiences, whether it was played by a sound track or performed live by the group, either at campaign events or at the square dances where they performed on weekends.

Despite its popularity, “M.T.A.” didn’t do much to help O’Brien’s campaign fortunes.  He finished last in the field of five candidates, far behind the winner, John B. Hynes, who narrowly defeated the incumbent, James Michael Curley.  Walter O’Brien never ran for public office again.  His wife, Laura did, though, making an unsuccessful bid for the Boston City Council two years later.  Both continued to remain politically active, however, working for progressive causes like labor rights, civil rights, and women’s rights, and campaigning to end the draft and the Cold War.

As the years went by, O’Brien’s campaign song continued to charm all who heard it.  A former O’Brien campaign volunteer taught it to folk singer Will Holt, who recorded it for Coral Records in 1957.  Upon its release, “M.T.A.” seemed well on its way to becoming a hit, quickly climbing the music charts.  But radio stations suddenly stopped playing the song and record stores refused to stock it after receiving complaints, especially in the Boston area, that the song glorified a “radical” - because in 1955, O’Brien, his wife, and other Progressive Party members had been accused by Massachusetts’ version of the House Committee on Un-American Activities of being “Communists or Communist sympathizers.”  The O’Briens denied the charge, and always would, but unable to find work in Boston after that, they moved back to Maine, where both had been born and raised.

In 1959 the Kingston Trio recorded “M.T.A.”  Mindful of what happened two years earlier, however, they changed the name of the political candidate mentioned at the end of the song from the real Walter to a fictional “George” O’Brien.  Without Walter O’Brien’s name, the controversy disappeared and the single of “M.T.A.” reached #15 on the Billboard chart, and the album on which it appeared reached #1.  Since then, “M.T.A.” has become a part of American folklore, sung around campfires and recorded by artists from all over the world in styles ranging from folk to funk and rock to reggae.

Walter O’Brien became a school librarian and later ran a bookstore up Maine.  He died in 1998 at the age 83.  It never bothered O’Brien that his name had been removed from the song that had been written for him.  His three daughters continue to collect the various versions of the song written for their father, even though the songs no longer mention his name.

Jackie Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes, who wrote “M.T.A.” went on to have long and successful careers performing, teaching and collecting folk music.  Hawes died in 2009, and Al Katz of the Boston Peoples Artists died in 1997.  But Steiner and the other surviving members of the group have fond memories of Walter O’Brien, and are proud of the progressive politics they shared and in the role they played in creating the folk classic known as “Charlie and the MTA.”

by Jackie Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes

Let me tell you the story of a man named Charlie
On a dark and fateful day
He put ten cents in his pocket and he kissed his loving family
And he went to ride the MTA.

Did he ever return?  No, he never returned
And his fate is still unlearned
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston
He’s the man who never returned.

Charlie handed in his dime at the Kendall Square Station,
And he changed for Jamaica Plain
When he got there the conductor told him, ‘One more nickel’
Charlie couldn’t get off the train.

As his train rolled on through greater Boston
Charlie looked around and sighed
“Well, I’m sore and disgusted and I’m absolutely busted
I guess this is my last long ride.”

Now all night long Charlie rode through the tunnels
Saying, “What will become of me?
Oh, how can I afford to see my sister in Chelsea
Or my brother in Roxbury?”

“I can’t help,” said the conductor
“I’m just working for a living but I sure agree with you
For the nickels and dimes you’ll be spending in Boston
You’d be better off in Timbuktu.”

Charlie’s wife goes down to the Scollay Square Station
Every day at a quarter past two
And through the open window she hands Charlie a sandwich
As his train goes rumbling through.

Now, citizens of Boston, don’t you think it is a scandal
That the people have to pay and pay?
Join Walter A. O’Brien and fight the fare increase
Get poor Charlie off that MTA!


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