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Charlie on the MTA

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Bobbo, vocals, mandolin, guitar, banjo
Tracy, bass
Matt, drums
Geo, violin

“Did he ever return, NO, he never returned and his fate is still unlearned.”

I can remember as a child daydreaming about poor old Charlie and what would happen to him. The classic folk song had been seemingly passed on to me through my Boston genes and birthright. My grandmother Rita and her twin sisters would sing this song, Joan on guitar with Jean and Rita singing sisterly harmony that was more like three cheerleaders than three folk singers. The exuberance of the performance overpowering any shortcomings of technical ability - you know, the way a good folk song should be delivered.

The history of the song dates back to 1949 when a “Progressive” candidate Walter O’Brien didn’t have enough money for radio ads so he hired a folk group to write songs for his campaign and drive around the city with a bullhorn mounted on the vehicle and sing the songs to the neighborhoods. He was fined $10 for this, he lost the race and was later blacklisted and labeled a communist, as were the folk singers who wrote this song.

The song tells the story of an asinine new fare increase on Boston’s subway system (Massachusetts Transit Authority - MTA) where you paid one fare to get on but another fare to get off the train. It didn’t last very long as the city had to have a 15 page booklet explaining the fare increase but the song remains. It was written by Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes.

Jacqueline was not just a folk singer but also a social activist. She released an album of anti-war songs in 1965, studied physics at Columbia University, sang with Pete Seeger and even worked for the NAACP.

Bess was born into a folk music family, she was a member of the folk group the Almanac Singers which also included Woody Guthrie, who taught her mandolin. She worked at UCLA, the Smithsonian and during World War 2 she worked for the Office of War Information preparing radio broadcasts for troops overseas. While her children were in nursery school, other parents asked about learning to play guitar so she offered to teach them for $1 each for group lessons. She gave some to her babysitter and the rest of the money to the nursery school. Those communal lessons can be directly linked to the Cambridge folk music boom that sprung up a few years later.

The song got a new life when milquetoast folk singers The Kingston Trio dusted the song off in 1959 and had a huge hit with “MTA” and changed the progressive candidate to a fake name so they could stay apolitical. Their first hit was “Tom Dooley” and when the songwriter Frank Proffitt saw the groups bastardized version of his song performed on tv said; “I began to feel sorta sick. Like I’d lost a loved one. Tears came to my eyes. I went out and bawled on the ridge." Sing Out magazine called the Kingston Trio "prostitutes of the art who gain their status as folk artists because they use guitars and banjos."

MTA, a great song, written by great women, was made more popular by men neutering it for public consumption. Happens all the time.

I am not The Kingston Trio or The Almanac Singers. But I will say I’m a folk singer. I would’ve sung this with Bess and Jackie, I like to think I would’ve been in the car singing this with them. 70 years later I’ve taken some artistic license as well. I’ve added my family’s hometowns of Billerica and Arlington to the mix even though the T doesn’t go to either town directly. And I’ve changed Walter O’Brien to James Michael Curley as a nod to my grandmother and her sisters. Curley was the outgoing Mayor of Boston in 1949 and was by all accounts a very crooked politician. During the depression my grandmother was a majorette. She would lead parades with her twirling and marching and Curley liked her to lead his parades. He would stop by the house in Arlington and say “Rita, big parade on Saturday, get yourself some new boots.” and hand her a twenty dollar bill. Twenty dollars in 1938 is equal to about $370 dollars in 2020. So she would get new boots and the family would eat for a month or two. We would all hear stories growing up about Curley and how he only ended up in jail because he was helping a friend and my grandmother lovingly referred to him as “Robin Hood”.

At some point in the 1990’s Tracy and I were visiting friends in Burlington, Vermont and ended up at The Last Chance Saloon for their weekly Irish music extravaganza with local band Bootless and Unhorsed. It was one of those musical experiences that stays with you for the rest of your life. A packed room of 20 somethings listening to a band of 50-60 year olds singing songs that were 70 to 200 years old. And the audience had their own parts to the songs. When B&U sang about the Old Dunne Cow the audience would erupt in “MACINTYRE!!” at the appropriate spot. When they sang “Charlie on the MTA” there was a call and response of “...and his fate is still unlearned.” and the audience would all shout “BULLSHIT!!” It was shocking at first but made sense and if that was to profane you really were not prepared for the audience’s role in the songs “Seven Drunken Nights” or “Bugger Off.”

It was around this time I started performing “solo” shows in and around Boston. They were solo in name only, Tracy was singing and playing bass, my buddy Jeff Turner was playing guitar and Tom Walsh was on drums. It was this lineup that was performing at TT the Bears in Cambridge when we did a rocking version of “Charlie on the MTA.” with members of legendary Boston band The Dropkick Murphys at the bar. Shortly thereafter The Dropkick Murphys released their rocked up version of Charlie on the MTA as well. Coincidence?

The song would pop up from time to time, like my friend George in Long Beach doing his rewrite of it as well. When working on our politically minded songs this summer, Charlie would pop into my brain often as a touchstone. It was a song for a socialist candidate but it was a song about helping out everyone, because you might end up as Charlie. It was not a song of division, it was inclusion. This could happen to you. It was a warning with a catchy chorus.

This is a long preamble for a two and a half minute song but that’s the background, it isn’t all fluff, these things have history.