Peter Dreier and Jim VrabelMay 9, 2017Jacobin
Most Americans know the song “MTA,” popularized by the Kingston Trio in 1959. It’s the one about a “man named Charlie” doomed to “ride forever ’neath the streets of Boston . . . the man who never returned.” What’s forgotten, however, is that the song was originally made for a left-wing political campaign. In 1949, the Boston People’s Artists wrote “MTA” for a left-wing candidate. The song became a hit — the man behind it disappeared.
Written in 1949, the song protested a five-cent fare increase imposed by Boston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Fighting the fare hike was an important element of Walter A. O’Brien Jr’s platform. The Progressive Party candidate for mayor, O’Brien opposed the state legislature’s taxpayer-funded bailout of the system’s previous operator, the privately owned Boston Elevated Company.
When the Kingston Trio’s 1959 version hit number fifteen on the Billboard charts, though, listeners didn’t hear Walter O’Brien’s name. In the last verse, the performers changed his first name from Walter to George — not because it was easier to sing but because of the Red Scare.
Charlie on the MTA: Did He Ever Return? — a new children’s book based on the song — sets the record straight. The author, Julia O’Brien Merrill, Walter O’Brien’s daughter, explained that her inspiration for writing the book was Nora Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, about the song written by her father, Woody Guthrie. “I began to dream that my book could also reach and teach readers — young and old — since ‘MTA’ is a fairly well-known folk song too.”
The story of “MTA” is not just about how a catchy campaign tune became part of American popular culture. Rather, it shows how the Left used music — particularly folk music — to inspire, educate, and mobilize people. It tells the story of a man and a movement that sought to introduce radical ideas into Boston politics.
O’Brien and his comrades believed that the postwar United States was headed in a progressive direction and that they could help turn the tide even in Boston, a bastion of conservativism. The Red Scare not only stopped them but also erased memory of the man who led that movement.
Ballads for Americans
Walter O’Brien Jr, a good-looking, broad-shouldered Irishman, combined his gift of gab with a passion for radical politics. Born in 1914, O’Brien grew up in Portland, Maine, where his ancestors had fled to escape the Irish Potato Famine.
At age twenty, he graduated from the Gorham Normal School (now part of the University of Southern Maine). Rather than put his college degree to use, he immediately shipped out to sea as a deckhand, because, he later explained, “They were paying teachers twelve dollars a week.” While at sea, O’Brien discovered a taste and a talent for politics. He soon became a union organizer.
Back on shore, he met Laura Manchester, also from Portland, and they married in August 1940. During World War II, Walter served as a radio operator in the Merchant Marines on a ship docked in Antwerp, Belgium when the Germans were bombing the city. After the war, they moved to Boston — partly to take advantage of job opportunities but also to escape Maine’s, and their families’, conservative politics.
They rented their first apartment on the North Slope of Beacon Hill, then the center of bohemian and left-wing culture. The couple immediately jumped into Boston’s radical politics. Walter got a job as port agent with the American Communications Association, a union affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Laura did secretarial work for various progressive organizations.
The couple joined the Massachusetts Progressive Party (MPP), a chapter of the national Progressive Party. In 1947, a coalition of independent radicals, Communists, and left-wing Democrats unhappy with the Truman administration had formed the upstart party.
They criticized Truman’s unwillingness to challenge southern Democrats over Jim Crow and his tepid support for labor unions. They advocated for an end to segregation, full voting rights for blacks, and universal health insurance. The party rejected the president’s get-tough policy with the Soviet Union and the loyalty oathsdesigned to keep communists from getting public-sector, teaching, and union jobs.
The Progressive Party was created primarily to support Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential bid, and in July of that year, O’Brien served as a delegate to the party’s national convention in Philadelphia, where the candidate was nominated. Wallace had served as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of agriculture and secretary of commerce, and vice president from 1941–45, but fell out of favor with Harry Truman (who replaced Wallace as vice president and became president upon FDR’s death) and mainstream Democrats. Denounced by some as naïve, a Soviet dupe, or worse, Wallace appeared to others as the New Deal’s champion. Some early polls showed that he had upwards of 20 percent support among voters.
Wallace’s campaign relied heavily on folk music. He traveled to events with Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, employed folklorist Alan Lomax as campaign “music director,” and made sure song sheets were passed out at every meeting for the sing-alongs that complemented his stump speeches. This integration of folk art into politics built on two decades of progressive history.
Beginning in the 1920s, two overlapping groups — collectors of traditional songs and American leftists — began to celebrate folk music as the “people’s music.” Carl Sandburg, John Lomax, his son Alan, Lawrence Gellert, and others collected songs heard at work, aboard ships, in Appalachian hollers and prison yards, on plantations and picket lines. American leftists began using this music not only to promote cross-cultural understanding and a sense of common humanity, but also to energize picket lines, enliven rallies, and galvanize unions and political campaigns.
Out of the Harlan County mineworkers’ struggle came Florence Reese’s labor classic “Which Side Are You On?” The period also saw Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” and “This Land Is Your Land.”
Guthrie belonged to the Almanac Singers, a group formed in 1941 that drew on traditional songs and original compositions to advance the cause of progressive groups, the Communist Party, CIO unions, the New Deal, and, later, World War II. The Almanacs included Pete Seeger, Bess Lomax (daughter of John), Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell, as well as a constantly revolving group that came and went, performing for unions and left-wing groups.
The Almanacs participated in a broader upsurge of popular left-wing culture during the New Deal, fostered in part by Federal Project Number One. This branch of the Works Progress Administration supported writers who collected oral histories and folklore, theater groups that developed radical plays like Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, and painters like Ben Shahn and Diego Rivera who designed and installed incredible murals. In novels, like John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath; musicals, such as Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock; and orchestral compositions, including Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait, the Left celebrated the working class and its collective struggle for a new world.
The era’s popular culture incorporated many of these ideas, often combining themes of patriotism with images of political rebellion. In 1939, for example, Earl Robinson teamed up with lyricist John La Touche to write “Ballad for Americans,” which Paul Robeson performed on the CBS radio network accompanied by chorus and orchestra. The eleven-minute cantata depicted American history as a struggle between the “nobodies who are everybody” and an elite that fails to understand the United States’s democratic essence. Broadcasts and recordings of the song — by Bing Crosby as well as Robeson — were immensely popular. The next year, the national conventions of both the Republican and Communist parties featured performances of “Ballad for Americans,” and the work soon became a staple in school choral performances.
During World War II, the American left, including its folk-song wing, supported the war effort. The Almanac Singers wrote and performed songs praising President Roosevelt, the troops, and defense workers. They downplayed domestic class struggle but defended America’s ally, the Soviet Union. In 1945, Robinson co-wrote another patriotic hit, “The House I Live In,” with lyricist Lewis Allen. In the first line, the singer asks, “What is America to me?”
The song answers that question by describing the United States as a place where all races can live freely, where one can speak one’s mind, where the cities and the natural landscapes are equally beautiful. Frank Sinatra made the song a hit. This idealistic representation of American life resonated during the war when the nation pulled together to oppose fascism and antisemitism. The Left hoped that the battle against bigotry and discrimination would continue at home.
After World War II, American radicals resumed their support for progressive unions, civil rights, and internationalism. Left musicians hoped to build on their successes during the war. In 1946, Seeger created People’s Songs, an organization of progressive songwriters and performers, and People’s Artists, a booking agency to help members get gigs and contracts. They published a newsletter, compiled The People’s Song Book, which included protest songs from around the world, and sponsored a number of successful concerts that featured Guthrie, Seeger, Hays, Lead Belly, Betty Sanders, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Tom Glazer, and Alan Lomax. Chapters grew in several cities and on college campuses.
The folk music activists enthusiastically supported Wallace’s campaign, which was initially backed by a wide spectrum of liberals and radicals. But as the media and his opponents linked him with communism, much of that energy withered. As John Culver and John Hyde write in American Dreamer, “only the most rabid red-baiters thought Wallace himself a communist. But millions came to believe he was a ‘dupe’ or a ‘fellow traveler’ or a ‘pink’ or the naive captive of leftist radicals.”
On election day, Wallace received just 1.1 million votes nationally (2.4 percent of the total). His poor showing stemmed from both his domestic and international positions: he opposed racial segregation and uncritically supported peace with the Soviet Union.
'Neath the Boston Streets
Wallace’s failure presaged what was to come: the Cold War stopped the Left in its tracks. Business feared an expansion of New Deal social welfare programs, high taxes, government regulation, and militant labor unions. Southern Democrats feared campaigns to bolster civil rights and promote integration. Anticommunism justified efforts to stifle dissent. Once the Red Scare gained momentum, it divided radicals and liberals, making it difficult to forge a broad progressive movement.
O’Brien campaigned energetically for Wallace and ran for Congress in Massachusetts’s 10th Congressional District on the Progressive Party ticket. He lost to Republican incumbent Christian Herter by a two-to-one margin, but garnered fifty thousand votes nevertheless.
After the election, most state Progressive Party chapters disbanded, but the MPP, thanks largely to its new executive director — Walter O’Brien — kept going. “He was a wonderful person to work for,” recalled Anne Alach, the party’s secretary, “although knowing Wally, he would have said ‘to work with.’” O’Brien, she said, “was committed to all of the causes and serious about the work, but he always had a smile on his face, and an accepting approach to everybody.”
Meanwhile, the O’Brien family began to grow. Daughter Katie was born in 1948 and Julia in 1950. (A third daughter, Amy, was born in 1964 after they had returned to Maine). Laura assumed most of the child-raising responsibilities, while Walter continued to organize. They lived on a modest income. Julia recalled that her parents would take the girls to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on Sundays, when admissions was free.
With O’Brien at the helm, the MPP attracted idealistic volunteers from a variety of backgrounds — college students, factory workers, professors, longshoremen, and housewives. They agitated for better housing conditions, supported labor unions, and crusaded for civil rights. Alach described the atmosphere as “hectic and joyful.”
“We worked late and we worked hard,” she recalled, “but thanks to Wally we weren’t all going around with dour faces . . . even though the odds were against us.”
Lawrence Shubow, a recent Harvard grad, became one of the chapter’s most active members. He described how O’Brien helped “heal a big political breach.” The party’s demographics skewed toward college-educated Jews, but O’Brien helped attract members from Boston’s largely working-class and Irish-Catholic population. “Wally was a solid, tough-minded individual who was asking his own questions when Irish Catholics were not supposed to challenge authority or rock the boat,” recalled Shubow.
O’Brien served as the Progressive Party’s “Mr Outside” — the organization’s public face who spoke at rallies, led demonstrations, and testified before committees. Shubow took the role of “Mr Inside,” filing legislation, writing speeches, and preparing issue papers. Both believed that the best way to energize the party and promote its issues was through election campaigns — so, in 1949, O’Brien declared his candidacy for mayor. Shubow served as his campaign manager.
His opponents included incumbent James Michael Curley, a legendary figure in Boston politics who had already been elected mayor four times in four different decades; City Clerk John B. Hynes, who had served as acting mayor in 1947 while Curley was serving time in federal prison for mail fraud; Democratic ward-heeler Patrick J. (Sonny) McDonough; and Republican real-estate developer George F. Oakes.
O’Brien ran a spirited, if low-budget, campaign. He and Shubow rode around Boston in a boxy old sound truck draped with banners. The candidate would stop to speak, a newspaper reported, “to whatever audience he can find.” Whenever a handful of people could be coaxed to gather, the truck would pull over and the two men would scramble up to a platform mounted on the roof. Shubow would introduce the candidate, and O’Brien would launch into one of his stump speeches.
O’Brien’s platform was designed to improve life for Boston’s working class. He called for public works jobs to reduce unemployment and pledged to create a city rent control law and a metropolitan housing authority to remedy the shortage of affordable housing. He decried “police brutality against strikers and members of minority groups” and urged people to speak out against “jingoists, war mongers, and enemies of world peace and international cooperation.”
O’Brien didn’t vary his message for his audience. Speaking at Boston’s Harvard Club, he described a government jobs program more ambitious than the New Deal. Before members of the Suffolk County Republican Club, he condemned the “money interests [for] owning and maintaining the city’s slums for their own profit.”
But O’Brien felt more at home among Boston’s working people. On one occasion, he led a picket line of tenants, mostly housewives and children, outside a meeting of the National Association of Apartment House Owners, charging that the landlords “lie through their teeth” when they claimed that there was no longer an acute housing shortage. On another, he warned longshoremen at Commonwealth Pier that “unless you take an active part in city, state, and national elections through political action . . . you too will find a city rife with unemployment as it was during the thirties.”
O’Brien’s biggest issue, though, became the recent MTA fare increase. In 1897, when Boston opened the nation’s first subway line, some one hundred thousand people paid five cents to ride half a mile under the edge of Boston Common. Subsequently, a chaotic web of individually owned and privately run subway and streetcar lines sprang up all over the city. In 1922, the Massachusetts legislature attempted to bring some order to that chaos by allowing one company, the Boston Elevated Railway Company, to absorb the others. But in 1947, when that company faced bankruptcy, the legislature had to step in again.
It created the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to take over the system and, O’Brien charged, bail out the Boston Elevated’s stockholders with taxpayers’ hard-earned money. Two years later, the financially strapped MTA raised fares from ten to fifteen cents. O’Brien seized on the issue in his campaign, circulating a petition to reverse the fare increase. More than twenty thousand signed it in just a few weeks.
But O’Brien wanted to generate more interest in the issue and excitement around his campaign. Through left-wing circles, he had come into contact with Bess Lomax Hawes, daughter of the famous folklorist John Lomax and a former member of the Almanac singers. She and her husband Butch hosted informal get-togethers at their house in Cambridge; attendees gathered to play, sing, and swap songs — and, inevitably, talk politics.
Bess knew more old folk songs than anyone else, and when the Almanacs needed topical songs to dramatize particular issues or plug a specific candidate, she could write them on short notice and set them to traditional tunes — “sometimes on the spot,” she later recalled.
When O’Brien asked her to write some songs for his campaign, Hawes turned to some of the people who came by her house for help. One was Jackie Steiner, a Vassar graduate who had just dropped out of graduate school to work for the Joint Anti-Fascist Committee, a radical group that raised money to help refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Classically trained, Steiner admitted she was initially too much of a “musical snob” to pay attention to folk music, but, when she heard Bess’s rendition of “Kentucky Moonshine,” she changed her mind.
The idea for “MTA” came to Hawes and Steiner one day when brothers Sam and Arnold Berman, two other participants in the get-togethers at Hawes’ home, were joking about one of the fare increase’s more peculiar aspects. Riders still only paid ten cents to enter underground subway stations, but they had to pay an additional five cents to exit. “Arnold and the rest of us were saying that if you didn’t have a nickel, then you could never get off the subway and you’d never get home,” Sam Berman recalled.
Hawes remembered a song that the Almanac Singers had written and performed for a 1941 Transport Workers Union (TWU) rally that filled Madison Square Garden with twenty thousand people. They called that song “The Train That Never Returned,” basing it on two older songs — “The Ship That Never Returned” and “The Wreck of the Old 97.”
Steiner wrote most of the lyrics, but Hawes added what proved to be the song’s most memorable idea: every day, Charlie’s wife brings him a sandwich that she passes through the window “while the train goes a’rumbling through.” “Without that verse, the song wouldn’t have been so popular,” Steiner maintains. “People just can’t resist asking why Charlie’s wife couldn’t just hand him a nickel instead.”
At the end of the song, Hawes and Steiner made sure that voters knew which candidate was on Charlie’s side:
Vote for Walter A. O’Brien
and fight the fare increase
get poor Charlie off that MTA!
Hawes, Steiner, and the Berman brothers recruited Al Katz and founded Boston People’s Artists. They wrote at least four other songs for O’Brien’s campaign, but only “MTA” and “The People’s Choice” — based on the sea shanty “The Drunken Sailor” with new words by Katz — made it onto a record the campaign released for political — not commercial — purposes. They recorded the song in late September or early October at the ACE Recording Studio on Boylston Place, just an alley across from Boston Common. Sam Berman sang the lead and played guitar; Steiner sang backup; Hawes played mandolin, Katz guitar, and Arnold Berman ukulele. Everyone chipped in on the chorus.
“MTA” debuted on October 24, 1949, according to a story in the Boston Globe (which incorrectly described the song as being “to the tune of ‘Casey Jones’”), when O’Brien appeared outside factory gates in South Boston and Roxbury. The campaign used the song repeatedly: sometimes the Boston People’s Artists performed it live, squeezing together atop the campaign sound truck; sometimes, O’Brien and Shubow played the recording.
People immediately liked the song, forming crowds when the O’Brien volunteers played it during the campaign. “There was just something about it,” Sam Berman recalled. “When people heard the song, they were taken by it.” Wherever the Boston People’s Artists played — at O’Brien events or at neighborhood dances — people invariably asked for “MTA.”
Despite the song’s popularity, O’Brien never stood a chance in the mayor’s race. His campaign had always been more about convincing voters to challenge Boston’s political and business establishment than about winning City Hall. Three weeks before the election, the candidate acknowledged as much: “I’m not an evangelist, but I believe I am doing a teaching job which will someday bear fruit.” Two days before the election, he reminded his campaign workers that they were “building a movement . . . rooted among the people . . . devoted to the furtherance of progressive ideals” that would outlast his campaign.
The night before the election, O’Brien vowed:
Whether in office or out, on January 1st, I am determined, as my organization is determined, to continue to carry on in union halls, at shop gates, in ward headquarters and on the streets, our battle for a new political party of the working people, small businessmen, house-wives and members of victimized minorities who will once and for all end the phoniness, corruption and unholy devotion to the needs of big business that has captured the major parties.
The next day, 138,000 Bostonians voted for the winner, John B. Hynes. Curley received 126,000, coming in second. McDonough received 22,360 and Oakes 7,133. O’Brien finished with only 3,563 votes, barely 1 percent of the total.
The Red Scare Comes to Boston
That a progressive candidate in Boston won so few votes came as little surprise. In the 1940s and 1950s, conservative Yankee Republican businessmen controlled the city economically and conservative Irish-Catholic Democratic politicians controlled its politics. In Boston, books were banned, unions were thrown out, and protesters faced hostile mobs and hostile cops. Some of Boston’s leaders followed Senator Joseph M. McCarthy’s lead and questioned the loyalty of the city’s radical activists, unionists, professors, teachers, and clergy. These politicians and businessmen made reckless accusations, charging many progressives as communists, “communist sympathizers,” or “fellow travelers.”
In 1948, the Boston public schools began to require every teacher to sign a “loyalty oath” as a condition of employment, and, three years later, Massachusetts became one of the first states to outlaw the Communist Party, beating Congress to it by three years.
Herbert Philbrick, a Boston advertising man, joined the FBI as a double agent. His work, which later inspired the film and subsequent television series I Led Three Lives, made him a star witness before various congressional investigative committees. Philbrick identified between seventy and eighty individuals in Boston businesses, unions, colleges, schools, and churches, whom he claimed were either communists or “the weak and the jelly fish who crawl before the Communist Party and those who do its dirty work without ever admitting they are sympathizers or party members.”
Massachusetts governor Paul Dever, a Democrat, declared November 27, 1951, “Herbert Philbrick Day,” and celebrated it with a testimonial dinner in the ad man’s honor at Boston’s Hotel Bradford, where the Massachusetts Progressive Party had held its founding convention just three years earlier.
In 1954, McCarthy used Boston as a tryout town, taking his Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (SPSI) on the road for what the Boston Globe called “the most tumultuous congressional sessions ever held in Boston.” The hearings took place at Boston’s federal building, and two local stations televised them live. Three people were ejected during the proceedings. At one point, McCarthy got into a shouting match with Lawrence Shubow, O’Brien’s campaign manager and one of the only lawyers in Boston willing to defend those called before the committee.
Massachusetts had its own version of the SPSI and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Created in 1938, it was originally called the Commission to Investigate the Activities Within the Commonwealth of Communist, Fascist, Nazi and other Subversive Organizations, So Called, but “Fascist” and “Nazi” were dropped when the group was reestablished in 1953. More popularly known as the Massachusetts Commission on Communism (MCC), it worked so closely with McCarthy that he invited its chairman (State Senator Philip Bowker, a Republican from suburban Brookline) and vice chairman (State Senator John E. Powers, a Democrat from South Boston) to sit in on the committee’s hearings held in Boston.
In 1955 and 1956, the MCC held more than fifty public hearings and executive sessions, calling scores of witnesses to testify. By this time, New England had only an estimated eight hundred Communist Party members, but, like its federal counterpart, the MCC did not confine itself to any official lists. On June 9, 1955, it issued a two-volume report with the names, addresses, and biographical sketches of eighty-five people it had identified as “present or former Communists or followers of the Communist party line” — including Walter and Laura O’Brien.
Days after the report came out, the eighty-five people named in it issued a statement. They complained that the MCC had made a “mockery of justice” and engaged in a “witch hunt,” vowing “to continue to fight for the rights of labor, for the civil liberties guaranteed by our Constitution, for equality of rights for all Americans, for the needs of youth, and for a peaceful world.” Unfortunately, few of them were in a position to do so.
After his unsuccessful campaign, O’Brien had tried to keep the Massachusetts Progressive Party alive. He, Laura, and other members remained active in social justice, peace, civil rights, and women’s movements. In June 1950, Walter was arrested in downtown Boston while demonstrating against the Cold War. At the same time, Laura was pushing their daughter Kathleen in a baby carriage on a picket line just a few blocks away, protesting the extension of the draft. In the fall of 1951, Laura ran for a seat on city council with the slogan, “As Boston’s housewives and mothers we can win this program for a better Boston and a peaceful world.” She didn’t win, but she did receive 11,500 votes.
By 1955, both the national Progressive Party and its Massachusetts chapter were dead, victims of the Red Scare. “People don’t realize how frightening it was,” Sam Berman recalled years later. “If you had subscriptions to certain magazines . . . if you had certain books . . . you hid them.” His brother Arnold remembered, “Being in the Progressive Party was tantamount to being in the Communist Party in the eyes of most people.”
After the MCC released its list, O’Brien, like many of those named, could no longer find work. For a while, he tried to put his winning personality to use as a car salesman. But each time he got a job, FBI agents would show up at the dealership and speak to his employer; soon O’Brien would be out of work once again.
Convinced that they couldn’t support their family in Boston, the O’Briens moved back to Maine — first to the small town of Gray. But after being confronted by FBI agents several times, they moved to Portland, hoping that their hometown and a bigger city might give them and their children a chance at anonymity and a new life. Laura became a teacher and Walter a school librarian. Their daughter Julia recalled that, while they attended occasional meetings and demonstrations, they avoided taking any leadership roles for fear of attracting unwanted attention.
The FBI noticed the O’Briens’ withdrawal. An entry in Walter’s file observed:
In view of the absence of reported activity on the part of the subject since 3/15/58, it does not appear that he meets the current requirements for inclusion on the Security Index and, accordingly, it is recommended that he be deleted.
MTA Comes Rumbling Back
While O’Brien was trying to keep a low profile, his campaign song was attracting attention. In 1955, folk singer Will Holt learned the song from Richard “Specs” Simmons, a waiter at New York’s Purple Onion nightclub. Simmons, a sometimes folk singer himself, hailed from Boston and had volunteered for O’Brien’s mayoral campaign. Holt recalled that the Bostonian “sang [‘MTA’] for me. I thought ‘this is very funny.’” Holt added the show to his act, and, “It just hit.”
Holt recorded “MTA,” first as a single and then as part of his 1957 album The World of Will Holt. Radio stations soon started to play the song, and it seemed well on its way to becoming a hit. “It was going to be a hot song . . . a novelty song,” Holt recalled. Life magazine even sent a reporter and photographer to Boston to do a feature story, taking pictures of Holt at the various subway stops mentioned in the song.
Just as the recording began to climb the charts, radio stations suddenly stopped playing it. Stores stopped selling the record, and Life magazine abruptly pulled the story. Holt explained that radio stations, particularly those in Boston, had received complaints that the song “glorified” a Communist by mentioning Walter O’Brien’s name. Sing Out!, a folk song magazine, corroborated Holt’s account, noting at the time that “the record company was astounded by a deluge of protests from Boston because the song made a hero out of a local ‘radical.’” Though Holt later admitted he wasn’t sure if the attack was part of a larger campaign or just a handful of individual complaints, “It was still the McCarthy era. It was nuts.”
In a desperate move to salvage the potential hit, Coral Records, which produced Holt’s song, removed the line about O’Brien. They literally cut it out, and careful listeners will notice the gap. It then re-released the song without that verse, but the damage had been done. Holt’s new version went nowhere. “My fame and fortune was suddenly out the window,” the singer recalled.
But good songs are hard to stop. A few years later, Holt taught the song to members of the Kingston Trio. “We sang Will Holt’s version,” trio member Nick Reynolds recalled. “We didn’t even know who the writers were.”
Like other groups, the Kingston Trio frequently made changes to the lyrics of folk songs. They added a whimsical spoken introduction to the song and made minor changes to a few of the lyrics (switching “dark and fateful day” to “tragic and fateful day” and changing a brother to a cousin). They dropped two verses to get the song down to the three-minute range that radio stations preferred. Their most important change, however, was to swap “Walter” for “George.”
In separate interviews in 2007, Kingston Trio members Bob Shane and Reynoldsoffered different explanations for the change. Shane said he couldn’t quite remember but thought it was because George “sounds a lot better” than Walter. Reynolds, however, said he knew exactly why they did it: “We changed the name so we wouldn’t get into political trouble. This was the McCarthy era,” he recalled. “Who knows who would come knocking on your door?”
Capitol records released “MTA” as a single on June 15, 1959, and on the Kingston Trio’s At Large album a week later. Without Walter O’Brien holding it back, the single reached number fifteen on the Billboard chart, and the album reached number one on the pop charts and remained charted for over two years.
Life magazine, which abruptly abandoned Holt two years earlier, ran a two-page feature on the song in its June 29, 1959, issue. Called “Ballad of Captive Rider,” the article included a photo of the Kingston Trio. The magazine ran a staged photo of a woman at the Scollay Square subway station brandishing a picket sign that read, “Get poor Charlie off the MTA” and a cartoon from the Boston Globe of a woman running alongside a moving subway train handing a passenger a sandwich. The article’s brief history of the song mentioned that it had been written for Walter O’Brien’s Progressive Party campaign, but did not explain that his name had been changed in the Kingston Trio version.
Living in Maine in the summer of 1959, Walter O’Brien thought his radical past in Boston was behind him — until one day it came calling in an unexpected way. Sam Berman remembered getting a phone call from O’Brien. “He’d just heard ‘MTA’ on the radio, and he was very excited, very happy,” Berman recalled. “‘We’re famous!’ Wally said.”
According to his friends and family, it never bothered O’Brien that his name had to be removed from “MTA” before it could become a hit. In fact, at first it worked to his advantage: “They don’t know who I am up here,” he told a friend, “and that’s the way I want it.” Walter and Laura O’Brien eventually retired to a cottage at Cundy’s Harbor, Maine, where they ran a small used bookstore which their daughter Julia described as open only in the summer or “by chance.”
But in his last years, Walter would sometimes let his guard down and even began to enjoy when a fan of the song tracked him down. In 1997, Tony Saletan, a Boston-area folk singer who performed a program of Progressive Party songs that included “MTA,” stopped by the O’Briens’ home to play them for them. By then, O’Brien was in poor health, but, according to Saletan, “he seemed to enjoy the musical interlude. The only problem was that I wanted to ask him about the songs, but all Wally could talk about was the issues behind them.”
Politics was evidently on O’Brien’s mind until the end, according to his daughter Julia. She recalls that her father would be asleep, “but in the middle of the night I’d hear him say: ‘I’ve got to get these petitions signed.’”
Walter died in 1998 at age eighty-three. Laura died two years later at age eighty.
In 2004, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (or MBTA, formerly the MTA) replaced its Boston-area subway tokens with an electric fare card, which it dubbed the “Charlie Card,” in honor of the song. To celebrate the occasion, the most recent incarnation of the Kingston Trio was invited to the event and played their version of the song outside the Government Center station (formerly the Scollay Square station, where — in the song — the train came “a’rumblin’ through”).
In 2010, the MBTA installed plaques at several stations — including the former Scollay Square — on which the real story of the “MTA” song’s origins is told, including the name of its hero, Walter O’Brien.
Over the years, the O’Brien family has collected dozens of versions of the song, which has often been updated to describe more recent history — including one by folk singer Fred Small about a Cosmonaut named Charlie who didn’t have a country to return to following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and one by Rod MacDonald, in which Charlie is a retiree, living in Florida, who casts a butterfly ballot in the 2000 US presidential election that results in a “hanging chad” that is mistakenly counted for George W. Bush.
Why has the song lasted? “It’s a good tune, first of all,” Pete Seeger explained in a 2007 interview, “and the whole idea of getting on the subway and not being able to get off . . . it’s a great poetic switch.”
The song’s central idea has become so well-known that it is often used as a metaphor about people stuck in difficult situations with no obvious hope in sight.
To this day, the surviving members of Boston People’s Artists make one thing clear: “Charlie” was never meant to represent a luckless fool doomed to “ride forever ’neath the streets of Boston” for want of some spare change. He was meant to symbolize the working person, caught in a system that was rigged against them and did not care if they never returned. They wrote the song to encourage people to build a progressive movement and elect radical candidates to challenge that system.
In that way, they were part of a long tradition that continues today. They have all used music to inspire people to envision and work for a better world.T
The authors would like to thank the following people for granting us interviews: Ann Alach, Arnold Berman, Sam Berman, Bess Lomax Hawes, Bob Haworth, Will Holt, Betty Katz, Larry Katz, Julia O’Brien-Merrill, Nick Reynolds, Tony Saletan, Pete Seeger, Bob Shane, Lawrence Shubow, Specs Simmons, and Jackie Steiner.
[Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College and author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. Jim Vrabel is a Boston historian and writer whose books include A People’s History of the New Boston and When in Boston: A Time Line & Almanac.]