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Publication Date: 2008-10-03

New York Times Obituary: Nick Reynolds, Kingston Trio Harmonizer, Dies at 75

Ohanian Comment: You can travel down memory lane and watch an old black & white film of the Kingston Trio performing this song here.

I post this for three reasons.

1) It is a delicious part of my childhood.

2) A transportation buff has provided fascinating background information. [See history below.]

3) I see wry connections between the fare increase policy and NCLB. In another version, we get this:

"I can't help," said the conductor,
"I'm just working for a living,
But I sure agree with you."
"For the nickels and the dimes you'll be spending in Boston
You'd be better off in Timbuktu."

We hear that helpless refrain so often these days in connection with NCLB:

  • I know it hurts kids but I can't help it

  • Just following orders

  • Please do something. . . but don't use my name

  • Help me; I can't/won't help myself

  • Did she ever rebel,
    No she never rebelled
    And her fate is still unlearn'd
    She may teach forever
    In the schools of NCLB
    She's the one who never rebelled.

    M.T.A. Lyrics
    From The Kingston Trio at Large
    Date: 07/01/1959
    Jacqueline Steiner/Bess Hawes

    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. The Metropolitan 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)

    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

    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.

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

    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."
    {this entire verse was replaced by a banjo solo}

    Now you citizens of Boston,
    Don't you think it's a scandal
    That the people have to pay and pay
    Vote for Walter A. O'Brien
    Fight the fare increase!
    And fight the fare increase
    Vote for George O'Brien!
    Get poor Charlie off the MTA.

    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.


    In the 1940s, the MTA fare-schedule was very complicated - at one time, the booklet that explained it was 9 pages long. Fare increases were implemented by means of an "exit fare". Rather than modify all the turnstiles for the new rate, they just collected the extra money when leaving the train. (Exit fares currently exist on the Braintree branch of the Red Line.) One of the key points of the platform of Walter A. O'Brien, a Progressive Party candidate for mayor of Boston, was to fight fare increases and make the fare schedule more uniform. Charlie was born.

    The text of the song was written in 1949 by Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes. It was one of seven songs written for O'Brien's campaign, each one emphasized a key point of his platform. One recording was made of each song, and they were broadcast from a sound truck that drove around the streets of Boston. This earned O'Brien a $10 fine for disturbing the peace.

    A singer named Will Holt recorded the story of Charlie as a pop song for Coral Records after hearing an impromptu performance of the tune in a San Francisco coffee house by a former member of the group. The record company was astounded by a deluge of protests from Boston because the song made a hero out of a local "radical". During the McCarthy era of the 1950s, the Progressive Party became synonymous with the Communist Party, and, since O'Brien was a Progressive, he was labeled a Communist. It is important to note that, contrary to popular belief, O'Brien was never on the Communist Party ticket. Holt's record was hastily withdrawn.

    In 1959, The Kingston Trio released a recording of the song. The name Walter A. was changed to George to avoid the problems that Holt experienced. Thus ended Walter O'Brien's claim to fame.

    Walter A. O'Brien lost the election, by the way. He moved back to his home state of Maine in 1957 and became a school librarian and a bookstore owner. He died in July of 1998.

    The site author adds an amusing note about Charley's Route, "proving" that he eventually did get off the train in 1983, by which time he would have been 65 and eligible for a senior citizen rate.

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