“M.T.A.”, 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
Charlie Card system simplifies fare collection. 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
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.
These are the times that try men’s souls. In the course of our nation’s history, the people
of Boston have rallied
bravely whenever the rights of men have been threatened. Today, a new crisis has arisen.
Transit Authority, better known as the M. T. A., is attempting to levy a burdensome tax on
the population in the
form of a subway fare increase. Citizens, hear me out! This could happen to you!
(Eight bar guitar, banjo introduction)
Well, let me tell you of the story of a man named Charley on a tragic and fateful day.
He put ten cents in his pocket, kissed his wife and family, went to ride on the M. T. A.
Well, did he ever return? No, he never returned and his fate is still unlearned. (What a
pity! Poor ole Charlie.
Shame and scandal. He may ride forever. Just like Paul Revere.)
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston. He’s the man who never returned.
Charlie handed in his dime at the Kendall Square Station and he changed for Jamaica