Those of us who have been around a while probably remember “M.T.A.”, a song that was turned into a hit record by the Kingston Trio in 1959. You might even remember enough about the lyrics to have an idea what the song was about, but what you might not know is that it began life a decade earlier as part of a political campaign.
In the late 1940s Walter A. O’Brien, a member of the Progressive party and a candidate for mayor of Boston, was desperately trying to get attention for his election hopes but didn’t have the funds for a media blitz. What he did have was dedicated followers among the area’s folk music community, and he was able to have several campaign songs written and recorded. He often played them on loudspeakers while driving his truck through city streets — although he was fined $10 for disturbing the peace.
Unfortunately O’Brien came in dead last in the election, but at least one of those songs lived on. It was informally known as “Charlie On The MTA” and poked fun at the transit authority’s convoluted rules, which included controversial ‘exit fares’ and therefore made the song’s story at least theoretically possible. Written by folk singers Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes (and based on earlier folk songs, such as ‘The Ship That Never Returned” and “Wreck of the Old 97” ), it was given new life when the Kingston Trio recorded a slightly revised version in 1959.
In the years since the Trio’s huge hit, the song has become a familiar part of Boston lore and is often performed by area musical groups, especially Irish-American bands. It has also led to variations like “Skinhead On The MBTA” by the locally-based punk rock band, Dropkick Murphys, but the final irony occurred a few years back when the transit authority named its new fare-card ‘the CharlieCard’.