Charlie, out from the underground

MBTA acknowledging radical roots of folk hero celebrated in subway song

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By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / December 26, 2010

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In June of 1959, packaged sandwiches and envelopes of nickels began pouring into the Park Square headquarters of Boston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, postmarked from as far off as California and Hawaii. All were addressed to Charlie — “the man who never returned.’’

The Kingston Trio’s “At Large’’ album was headed to number one, and listeners couldn’t get enough of the opening track, “M.T.A.,’’ about a fellow trapped on the subway because he lacked a nickel for the exit fare. The hit would go on to become a campfire staple and slice of Americana, widely embraced, frequently parodied, and adapted for styles from country to punk.

So Charlie was a natural choice when the MBTA — the MTA’s successor — need ed a name six years ago for new fare cards that would replace tokens. When they unveiled the CharlieCard, officials invited the latest incarnation of the Kingston Trio to Government Center, where Governor Mitt Romney sang along, by heart. “I’ve always wanted to do that, since about the fifth grade,’’ he said.

The moment, anything but subversive, belied Charlie’s charged political past. The character was conceived not as the hapless schlub immortalized in the Kingston Trio song but as a working-class hero ground down by big business and the two-party system.

The song popularized by the trio, memorized by Romney, and celebrated by the MBTA is actually a sanitized version of the original, a campaign song for a 1949 Boston mayoral candidate who opposed the subway fare hike. But by 1959, the candidate had been blacklisted and run out of town, and the song’s most political lyrics were simply edited out.

The T is just now beginning to tell that backstory — what Richard A. Davey, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, called the “important history’’ of a song known informally as “Charlie on the MTA.’’ It encompasses both the birth of the modern transit system and the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War.

Like so many Bostonians who grew up with the song, Davey had never heard the lines in which Charlie says he is “sore and disgusted and . . . absolutely busted,’’ or in which a conductor expresses sympathy for Charlie’s plight. That’s because the clean-cut Kingston Trio cut the lyrics to avoid causing trouble, wary of the blacklisted fate of the Weavers, folk artists they admired. They changed the final stanza to plug a made-up candidate named George O’Brien, instead of the real Walter A. O’Brien — a labor organizer and Progressive Party activist whose politics made him a target of the Massachusetts Commission on Communism in the mid-1950s.

Now, the unedited, original lyrics are displayed at a series of MBTA stations, along with a history of O’Brien and the song. The T installed them recently at Park Street and Government Center — the renamed Scollay Square, where Charlie’s wife went down “every day at a quarter past two’’ to hand him a sandwich — and at three Green Line surface stops where Charlie would have had to pay extra to get off.

“M.T.A.’’ was inspired by that 5-cent exit charge, atop a 10-cent fare — a steep increase for riders heading to outlying stops. O’Brien gathered tens of thousands of signatures in 1949 to fight the increase, and he made it a key part of his campaign.

The MTA had been formed just two years earlier from the ashes of the Boston Elevated Railway Co., a private company whose shareholders had received a guaranteed dividend for years even as the transit company relied on public subsidies. When lawmakers eventually bought them out to abolish the company, shareholders made out handsomely. Then the taxpayers footing the bill got slapped with the fare hike.

“The Progressive Party saw that as a bailout of private interest and inappropriate use of taxpayer money, and [then the fare increase] was one wrong piled upon another,’’ said Jim Vrabel, an activist and historian determined to reclaim the song’s origins. “It’s been kind of trivialized and made kind of a cute song, and people don’t realize the serious political background of it.’’

O’Brien couldn’t afford radio ads, but he had a boxy old truck outfitted with speakers and a platform. He had asked a quintet named the Boston Peoples Artists to compose and record some songs he could broadcast from the truck as it drove through the city, and sometimes to play live from the truck at rallies.

The Peoples Artists, an informal group of twentysomething friends who gathered on Sunday nights at the Cambridge home of Bess Lomax Hawes to play music and talk politics, thought the exit charge could provide comic fodder to enliven a protest song about the fare increase.

Folk has a history of rewriting lyrics to old songs to deliver a topical message. In New York, Hawes had been part of the Almanac Singers, a musical collective that included Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and once rallied transit workers with a riff on the shared tune of the 1920s song “Wreck of the Old 97’’ and the 19th century’s “The Ship That Never Returned.’’

She suggested using the same tune, and friend Jacqueline Steiner wrote lyrics about a rider stuck on Boston’s subway — a rider named Angus. But that name was nixed by the others, who thought it could be perceived as playing into stereotypes about Scottish frugality.

“They said it was ‘national chauvinism,’ and they were absolutely right,’’ recalled Steiner, from her home in Norwalk, Conn. “I think it was Bess who came up with the name Charlie just out of the blue.’’

Hawes also inserted the sandwich-handoff line.

“To this day if I sing that song, that is the key verse,’’ said Steiner, who sang backup on the original “M.T.A.’’ “It gets laughs. It also inevitably gets someone coming up to me afterwards and saying, ‘Why didn’t she just give him the extra nickel?’ ’’

The friends went to Ace Recording Studios on Boylston Street and pressed “M.T.A.’’ onto a 78 for O’Brien; on the reverse they recorded “People’s Choice,’’ urging voters to “clean out the phonies and all their cronies’’ on election day, to the tune of “Drunken Sailor.’’

“M.T.A.’’ made its debut from O’Brien’s sound truck outside the gates of a factory on Oct. 24, 1949. Two weeks later, he finished fifth in the election, collecting 1 percent of the vote.

None of the members of the Peoples Artists expected “M.T.A.’’ to outlive the campaign. But the song was catchy, and when a young O’Brien volunteer named Richard “Specs’’ Simmons found himself working as a waiter in a New York nightclub, he introduced it to the up-and-coming singer Will Holt.

Coral Records, home to both Buddy Hackett and Buddy Holly, soon brought Holt into the studio to record “M.TA.,’’ releasing it as a single in early 1957. It seemed so destined for success that Life magazine took Holt on the real MTA for a photo shoot.

But early radio play generated “a deluge of protests from Boston because the song made a hero out of a local ‘radical,’ ’’ according to an account in the folk magazine Sing Out!

Holt hadn’t even realized O’Brien was a real person. Coral tried editing out his name, but radio stations backed off, and Life killed the story.

“They decided it was a Commie song,’’ said Holt, now 81. “So what happened was this song which was going to take me all the way to total stardom was now finished, totally finished.’’

Holt instead played it in small clubs, where the Kingston Trio heard it in San Francisco and recorded their own version, slightly revised.

“We’d just gotten out of school. We didn’t want to get blacklisted,’’ Nick Reynolds, a founding member, told Vrabel and Occidental College politics professor Peter Dreier before his 2008 death, for a 40-page article they published in the journal American Music.

Meanwhile, life became difficult for O’Brien as the Red Scare in Massachusetts intensified. Boston teachers had to sign a patriotic “loyalty oath,’’ and the Boston Bar Association sought to disbar anyone who might be Red. A commission established by the Legislature was determined to root out all possible Communists.

“If you had a left-leaning book in your house, you either threw it out or burned it or hid it,’’ said Sam Berman, 87, who sang lead on “M.T.A.’’ and is today a Lexington retiree.

Though O’Brien had denied being a Communist, his activism made him a troublemaker in the eyes of the commission, and he and his wife were placed on the state’s highly publicized blacklist in 1955. Even as he retreated from politics, he found himself ostracized and unable to hold down a job. Within the year, he uprooted his family and settled in Gray, Maine.

O’Brien became a librarian, and the FBI eventually stopped tracking him. He loved the popularity of “M.T.A.,’’ even though his name was omitted from the song. Shortly before his death in 1998, an ailing O’Brien watched with delight as the Boston Pops performed it on national TV.

“You would have thought my father was the king of England,’’ said O’Brien’s daughter, Julia O’Brien-Merrill. “He just thought it was the greatest thing.’’

After the introduction of the CharlieCard, the T posted some displays about the song, but they were partially inaccurate. Lew Finfer, a longtime Boston organizer who admired O’Brien, thought a fuller version needed to be told. After lobbying from Finfer and Vrabel, the T worked with them to develop and install displays this year. The men also hope the T will consider a ceremony to recognize those with a connection to the song, especially the three surviving members of the Peoples Artists.

O’Brien-Merrill said she would be honored to participate, and Steiner wouldn’t let shaky knees — one recently replaced, the other faltering — keep her away. Berman is in, even though “I can’t call my singing anything but croaking anymore,’’ he said. His brother Arnold, younger by a year, would come in from upstate New York and bring his ukulele, which bears the scars of stray embers from the torches mounted on O’Brien’s sound truck.

As for Will Holt, he still smarts a little over “M.T.A.’’ and what might have been. In 1959, the Kingston Trio got his Life photo spread. Nonetheless, he counted himself in.

“If,’’ he added, “it can get me a lot of tokens.’’

Of course, tokens are gone now. The CharlieCard that replaced them features a picture of a triumphant Charlie, wielding a card of his own. After all these years, he could finally return.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at