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Who Is CharlieCard Charlie?

MBTA Charlie card.
MBTA CharlieCard.

Boston subway and bus riders know “Charlie,” he’s the man on the MBTA’s electronic fare cards. That’s why they’re called CharlieCards. Many also know that the name comes from a song about a rider who couldn’t get off the subway because he didn't have a nickel for the exit fare. But did you know that some of the story is true, that the song began as a campaign jingle and that it was embroiled in 1950s anti-communist witch hunts?

Charlie’s Song. Charlie on the MTA was a hit song by the Kingston Trio. No that’s not a typo, today’s MBTA was called the MTA until 1964.

The song is about a subway rider named Charlie. The conductor won’t let him off the train because he doesn’t have money for the new five cent exit fare. So Charlie’s stuck. Every day as his train passes through Scollay Square his wife hands him a sandwich. The song ends with a political call to action:

MBTA Fare Token.
MBTA Token.

“Fight the fare increase, vote for George O’Brien
Get poor Charlie off the MTA”

When the MBTA replaced tokens with fare cards, it named the cards for Charlie. You can hear the song in a YouTube video with photos of old-time subway cars.

Part of the Song Is True! No, not Charlie. But there was a nickel fare increase and a candidate named O’Brien who opposed it. Charlie’s song was written as a jingle for O’Brien’s campaign.

Walter O'Brien.
Walter O’Brien.1

The nickel increase was imposed to pay for the MTA’s 1947 bailout of the Boston Elevated Railway, a private company that had owned Boston’s subways. The old fare had been a dime so the increase was 50%.

The Progressive Party’s 1949 mayoral candidate, Walter O’Brien, made opposition to the fare increase a key plank of his platform. The campaign couldn’t afford radio ads so they played catchy tunes from their campaign truck and at rallies.

Charlie’s song was written by The Peoples Artists, young musicians who met weekly to play music and talk politics. It debuted two weeks before the election.

O’Brien only got one percent of the vote and finished last in a field of five, but the campaign song lived on. It was recorded and played in small clubs. The Kingston Trio heard it and recorded its own version, which went to the top of the charts. The rest is history.2

Charlie’s Song Was Un-American. The really bizarre story is how Charlie’s song got caught up in the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, when the House Un-American Activities Committee and other agencies destroyed the careers of people accused of communist leanings.

Governor Mitt Romney signing MTA Charlie with Kingston Trio.
Gov. Romney Singing MTA Charlie with Kingston Trio.3

One of the song’s writers, Bess Hawes, left Boston after FBI agents went to her children’s school to question children and parents about her and her husband’s activities. O’Brien was investigated by the Massachusetts Commission on Communism and put on a list of 85 communists. In the 1950s that meant he was “blacklisted” and effectively unemployable. O’Brien and his wife moved to Maine and stayed out of politics.

A 1957 recording of Charlie’s song also fell victim to this hysteria. Bostonians hearing it on the radio complained that it celebrated a radical. Radio stations pulled the song and Life magazine withdrew a story about it.

To avoid such controversy the Kingston Trio dropped some populist lyrics and changed the name of the candidate from Walter to George when they recorded the song in 1959. This sanitized version is the one most people have heard. You can hear the original sung by the original lead vocalist, Sam Berman, on the Boston Globe’s web site.

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  1. Photo from Peter Dreier and Jim Vrabel, Banned in Red Scare Boston: The Forgotten Story of Charlie & the MTA, July 30, 2012. The authors credit the photo to Julia O’Brien-Merrill.
  2. See generally Eric Moskowitz, Charlie, Out from the Underground, The Boston Globe (December 26, 2010 ); Peter Dreier and Jim Vrabel, Will Charlie Ever Get Off That Train? Huffington Post (March 18, 2009, updated May 25, 2011); History of Charlie on the MTA, MBTA web site.
  3. Governor Romney singing with The Kingston Trio at the CharlieCard launch ceremony on November 9, 2004. Photo from Boston.com.

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