Charlie on the MTA

Melody | Lyrics | History | Charlie's Route | Back to my Transit Page

I have long enjoyed listening to "The M.T.A. Song", better known as "Charlie on the M.T.A".  In recent years, I have learned a great deal about the song and about the M.T.A (now M.B.T.A) itself, and would like to share this information here.  About a year ago, I had the privilege to hear the original recording of the song (only two copies of the record exist) - regrettably I did not have a tape recorder with me at the time :-). I would like to give credit to the speaker at the BSRA meeting who gave the presentation, but I can't recall his name. If you're that person, let me know.


The melody of this song is a fairly old one. The first song (as far as I know) to use this melody was "The Ship That Never Returned", written in 1865 by Henry Clay Work. Work also wrote the more well-known song "My Grandfather's Clock" (and there are some similarities in melody between the two). The more famous use of this melody was in "The Wreck of Old #97".

Short clips of the songs are here (MP3 format):
The Ship That Never Returned (899K) - listen to the chorus - it's almost exactly the same
The Wreck of Old 97 (860K)

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Copyright Info: These words, as far as I know, are copyright Jacqueline Steiner, and Bess Lomax-Hawes. The Kingston Trio version is copyright Capitol Records.

Before I get into the background of the song, let me present the lyrics in their entirety.  The version recorded by The Kingston Trio includes the chorus after each verse. Words in italics indicate the changes made by The Kingston Trio in their later recording. Parentheses indicate backing vocals.

Let me tell you the story
Of a man named Charlie
On a tragic and fateful day
He put ten cents in his pocket,
Kissed his wife and family
Went to ride on the MTA

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 could not get off that train.

                        Did he ever return,
                        No he never returned
                        And his fate is still unlearn'd
                        He may ride forever
                        'neath the streets of Boston
                        He's the man who never returned.

Now all night long
Charlie rides through the tunnels
                                 the station
Saying, "What will become of me?
How can I afford to see
My sister in Chelsea
Or my cousin in Roxbury?"

Charlie's wife goes down
To the Scollay Square station
Every day at quarter past two
And through the open window
She hands Charlie a sandwich
As the train comes rumblin' through.

As his train rolled on
underneath 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."
{this entire verse was replaced by a banjo solo}

Now you citizens of Boston,
Don't you think it's a scandal
That the people have to pay and pay
Vote for Walter A. O'Brien
Fight the fare increase!
And fight the fare increase
Vote for George O'Brien!
Get poor Charlie off the MTA.

Or else he'll never return,
No he'll never return
And his fate will be unlearned
He may ride forever
'neath the streets of Boston
He's the man (Who's the man)
He's the man who never returned.
He's the man (Oh, the man)
He's the man who never returned.
He's the man who never returned.

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(If you have any corrections to the information here, please let me know)

In the 1940s, the MTA fare-schedule was very complicated - at one time, the booklet that explained it was 9 pages long.  Fare increases were implemented by means of an "exit fare".  Rather than modify all the turnstiles for the new rate, they just collected the extra money when leaving the train.  (Prior to the introduciton electronic fare collection in the mid-2000s, exit fares existed on the Braintree branch of the Red Line.)  One of the key points of the platform of Walter A. O'Brien, a Progressive Party candidate for mayor of Boston, was to fight fare increases and make the fare schedule more uniform.  Charlie was born.

The text of the song was written in 1949 by Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes.  It was one of seven songs written for O'Brien's campaign, each one emphasized a key point of his platform.  One recording was made of each song, and they were broadcast from a sound truck that drove around the streets of Boston. This earned O'Brien a $10 fine for disturbing the peace.

A singer named Will Holt recorded the story of Charlie as a pop song for Coral Records after hearing an impromptu performance of the tune in a San Francisco coffee house by a former member of the group. The record company was astounded by a deluge of protests from Boston because the song made a hero out of a local "radical". During the McCarthy era of the 1950s, the Progressive Party became synonymous with the Communist Party, and, since O'Brien was a Progressive, he was labeled a Communist.  It is important to note that, contrary to popular belief, O'Brien was never on the Communist Party ticket.  Holt's record was hastily withdrawn.

In 1959, The Kingston Trio released a recording of the song.  The name Walter A. was changed to George to avoid the problems that Holt experienced.  Thus ended Walter O'Brien's claim to fame.

Walter A. O'Brien lost the election, by the way.  He moved back to his home state of Maine in 1957 and became a school librarian and a bookstore owner. He died in July of 1998.

While the information above is in the public domain, the text was written by me in late '98/early '99. Some wanker ripped off part of my text and is using it on other pages.

Epilogue: Jacqueline Steiner died January 30, 2019 at the age of 94. I had the privilege to speak with her by phone in 2004 after a family member of hers happened to find this page. She led a very interesting life and was happy to talk about her most well-known song 55 years later, as well as her time working with people we now know as folk legends today.

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Charlie's Route

Of course, one has to estimate Charlie's route given that the MBTA has changed dramatically between 1949 and the current day, but I have compiled what I imagine is a fairly accurate route:

Kendall Square -> Park Street -> Arborway

Here is my basis for this:

Charlie might just have been able to get off the train at some point the '70s. From 1968 to 1980, the subway fare was 25 cents. In the mid 1970s, a senior citizen discount was introduced for "half fare". Rather than charge 12.5 cents, half-fare was defined as "10 cents". If Charlie was well into his 30s when he got on the train, he might just have been over 65 before 1980, and could have gotten off the train in Jamaica Plain. Getting back might be a problem...

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Reader Comments
(Since some folks prefer not to have their information posted on line, I am using initials. If you wrote one of these comments and would prefer to be credited different, please let me know.)

R.N. writes in to say that between the "Now all night long..." and "As his train rolled on..." verses there was another on the original song:

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

J.G. writes in to say:

"Who was that San Francisco singer [who performed in a coffeehouse that inspired Will Holt's recording]?"

His name is "Specs" and he owns a tavern here in SF. He told me that a theater company was interested in the song and his friend warned him to copyright it before they got their hands on it...[sic] so he did. He told the two ladies who wrote it [Steiner & Hawes] about what had happened and they were so grateful about him saving it from being copyrighted by someone else that they cut him in 1/3 for publishing royalties. When the Kingston Trio made their big hit with it in 1959 the money really started rolling in (back in 1960 a few thousand dollars went a long way) and to this day when the odd check shows up, people in the tavern Specs owns find themelves with a "drink on the house" sitting in front of them.

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