Saturday, February 4, 2012

Getting There: M.T.A.

The Kingston Trio: M.T.A


If you are a city-slicker like myself then you rely public transportation to get you to where you need to be. In large cities you really depend on a reliable and affordable subway system. In the large cities where I have lived (Chicago, Toronto, Boston) financing of the subway system is always a highly contentious political issue. It was this very issue that lead to the penning of the song "M.T.A." in 1949.

In 1949 Walter O'Brien was running for the mayor of Boston as a Progressive Party candidate. One of O'Brien's major campaign platforms was to lower the cost of the subway fare. He did not have the money to make radio advertisements, so he hired local folk singers to write and sing songs promoting his candidacy. Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes (sister of Alan Lomax) wrote "M.T.A." based on the 1865 Henry Clay folk song "The Ship that Never Returned." (Listen to The Corsairs version of The Ship the Never Returned.)

The song is about a man named Charlie who boards the train at Kendall (in Cambridge near the MIT campus) to go to Jamaica Plain (west Boston). However, he can't get off of the train because he lacks a nickle to pay the exit fare, which has just been added. Thus Charlie is doomed to ride the train in perpetuity. His wife even brings him a sandwich everyday, by handing it through the window, although, for some reason, she can't hand him a nickle. Here's a fascinating article from the Boston Globe that goes more into the details of this politically charged song, including a performance of "Charlie on the M.T.A." using the original lyrics.

Many years later The Kingston Trio heard "M.T.A." being performed by Will Holt in a San Francisco club. They pulled the politics out of the song, and had a cute, catchy pop hit on their hands, which peaked at #15 on the singles charts in 1959.

"M.T.A." is so ingrained in Boston folklore that the transit passes are known as "Charlie Cards" in honor of the man who never returned. I photographed my Charlie Card (above) as an example. At the Park Street station, where Charlie would have transferred from the Red Line from Kendall to the Green Line to get to Jamaica Plain, there is a display on the history of the song. The song is also notable in that it references parts of Boston that no long exist. Scollay Square, where Charlie's wife met him to give him a sandwich, was razed in the mid-60s and renamed Government Center.

Poor old Walter O'Brien did not get elected mayor of Boston in 1949. He only garnered one percent of the vote. In the early 1950s he was run out of Boston, accused of being a communist. He retired to Maine where he became a librarian and ran a bookstore.

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