, often called "The MTA Song"
, is a 1948
song written as "Charley on the MTA"
by Jacqueline Steiner
and Bess Lomax Hawes
. The lyrics are about a man named Charlie trapped on Boston
's subway system
, then known as the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). The song was a 1959
hit when recorded and released by The Kingston Trio
, an American folk group. The name Charles may be a reference to the Charles River
, the largest waterway in the region.
The Boston subway system has named its electronic card-based fare collection system the "CharlieCard", which is a tribute to this song, as the CharlieCard system simplifies fare collection.
The song's lyrics tell of Charlie, a man who gets aboard an MTA subway car. Charlie can't get off the subway as he didn't bring enough money for the "exit fares
" that were established to collect an increased fare without upgrading existing fare collection equipment.
- When he got there the conductor told him:
- "One more nickel."
- Charlie couldn't get off of that train!
The song goes on to say that Charlie's wife is able to hand him a sandwich every day (but not, for some reason, a nickel) "as the train comes rumbling through."
The song is probably best known for its catchy chorus:
- 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.
After the third line of the chorus, in the natural break in the phrasing, audiences familiar with the song often call out "Poor Old Charlie!" or "What a pity!"
In the Kingston Trio recording, after the final chorus, the song's lead singer Nick Reynolds speaks the words: "Et tu, Charlie?" ("You too, Charlie?"), an echo of Julius Caesar's famous "Et tu, Brute?" ("You too, Brutus?")
The song, based on a much older version called "The Ship That Never Returned
" (or its railroad successor, "Wreck of the Old 97
"), is said to have been composed in 1948 as part of the election campaign of Walter A. O'Brien
, a Progressive Party
candidate for Boston mayor
. As the story goes, 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
According to this story, one of his major campaign planks was to lower the price of riding the subway by removing the complicated fare structure involving exit fares — so complicated that at one point it required a nine-page explanatory booklet. In the Kingston Trio recording, the name "Walter A. O'Brien" was changed to "George O'Brien," apparently to avoid risking protests that had hit an earlier recording, when the song was seen as celebrating a socialist politician.
The song has Charlie boarding at Kendall Square
and changing for Jamaica Plain
. Jamaica Plain is a neighborhood in Boston, which was an area served by a streetcar line
that terminated at Arborway
(a reference to a road that passes the Arnold Arboretum
), near present-day Forest Hills
station. Service operated to Arborway until 1985, when the streetcar route was truncated to Heath Street
at the northern edge of Jamaica Plain, today's Green Line "E" Branch
. The "Charlie Card" depicts a fellow on a Green Line
If his wife visited him every day at the Scollay Square station (now called Government Center), he must have been on what is now the Green Line (rapid transit lines in Boston were not color-coded until 1965). His "change for Jamaica Plain" must therefore have been at the centrally placed Park Street.
- A Subway Named Mobius is a short story by A.J. Deutsch in which a mathematics professor makes a topological discovery after becoming 'lost' on the MBTA. A 1996 Argentinian movie, Moebius, has a very similar plot.
- The computer scientist Henry Baker references the song in his paper CONS Should Not CONS Its Arguments, Part II: Cheney on the M.T.A., which describes a way of implementing Cheney's algorithm using C functions that, like Charlie, never return.
- Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo honored the song with the Christmas-carol parody song ''Deck Us All With Boston Charlie]".