Flashbackie: MTA Fare Increases

mbta_map_630WC noted the news that Boston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority would be raising its fares by 10% next year. If you are above a certain age, you immediately think of The Kingston Trio’s big hit, “The MTA Song.” Because some things never change.

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

Jacqueline Steiner, and Bess Lomax-Hawes wrote this as a campaign song for Progressive Party Boston mayoral candidate Walter A. O’Brien. MTA fares were a complicated mess, and one of O’Brien’s campaign pledges was to simplify and reduce the MTA fares. O’Brien was unable to afford radio advertisements, so he enlisted local folk singers to write and sing songs from a touring truck with a loudspeaker (he was later fined $10 for “disturbing the peace”). O’Brien finished dead last in the mayoral race.

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.

The Kingston Trio had a big hit with the song ten years later, in 1959. There’s some irony there; The Kingston Trio was a west coast group, with no connection to the east coast or its folk song traditions.

Now all night long
Charlie rides through the station
Saying, “What will become of me?
Crying, “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.

 In 2006 the MTA – by then known as the MBTA – adopted a fare card system called the “Charlie Card” named after the hero of the song. The card depicts a man on a Green Line train, the line on which Charlie was trapped.

Now you citizens of Boston,[^1]
Don’t you think it’s a scandal
That the people have to pay and pay
Fight the fare increase!
Vote for George O’Brien!
Get poor Charlie off the MTA.

The Kingston Trio were often criticized for betraying folk music’s role as a protest medium. There’s some truth to the accusation. Here the Trio changed “Walter A. O’Brien,” a prominent Socialist politician in Boston, to “George O’Brien,” a made up name, to avoid mentioning a Socialist in the song.

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.

The fare was ten cents in 1949; it’s $2.10 today. Where’s Walter A. O’Brien when you need him?


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.”


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