Charlie on the M.T.A. Did He Ever Return?
"Did he ever return, no he never returned
And his fate is still unlearned
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston
He’s the man who never returned."
One day in 1959 when I was nine years old, three years after my family had moved from Boston to Maine, I remember my father, Walter A. O’Brien, Jr. jumping up and down and yelling into the black rotary phone, “We’re famous!” to his dear friend Sam Berman of Boston. He had just been listening to the radio and had heard a version of the M.T.A. Song by the Kingston Trio which had hit #15 on the Billboard charts that year. The only problem was that at the end of the song instead of “Vote for Walter A. O’Brien”, the Kingston Trio had changed his name to “George O’Brien” due to the Red Scare. For many reasons, my father understood why they made the change and decided to let it go. He continued to bask in a bit of glory as the song written for his Boston mayoral run in 1949 went on to become a popular folk song.
Throughout the next few decades as the Kingston Trio’s version of the M.T.A. song took on a life of its own, my father reconnected with his friends from The Boston People’s Artists, including the original lyricists Jackie Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes, as well as Al Katz and Sam and Al Berman. As the years passed and I became more interested in my parents’ progressive political lives in Boston, my father shared with me three brown suitcases full of newspaper articles, speeches, photographs, campaign materials and the original 33-vinyl record of the song and entrusted me to take care of them and share them. I have recently gifted these materials to the Maine Historical Society where they have been archived in the Walter Alphonsus, Jr. and Laura Mae Manchester O’Brien Collection at the Brown Research Library in Portland.
The M.T.A. Song has moved me to share the story of the song, as my father had requested and hoped I would do. Beginning in 2008, ten years after my father’s death, I was inspired by several historical, political and musical articles written about the song, by historians Jim Vrabel and Peter Dreier in Dissent Magazine, Huffington Post, The Nation, and most recently an online article in Jacobin Magazine to get the original lyrics with my father’s name back into circulation where it belonged.
I am a life-long educator who has used children’s illustrated books to teach children about the world. I was moved to create a book with the original lyrics and a bit of his story to honor my father for his 100th birthday in 2014. I had no idea how difficult it would be to find a publisher, an illustrator and a team committed to making a book become a reality. With special thanks to many encouraging friends and family, amazing illustrator Caitlin Marquis and all of the kind folks at Applewood Books, I am on the end of the journey and happy to announce that Charlie on the M.T.A. Did He Ever Return? arrived on the shelves of bookstores in 2017. Since then I have visited schools and libraries in Maine and in Boston sharing the book. Almost everyone I speak with about the origins of the M.T.A. song has some connection, whether they sang the song at summer camps, at hootenannies, or in schools. Since the current MBTA CharlieCard was named to honor the song in 2004, many people have been curious about Charlie and often ask me, “Is Charlie your father?” You’ll have to read the book to find out!
My name is Julia O’Brien-Merrill. I was born in Boston, grew up in Portland and attended Portland High School before my grandmother and I ventured off on a Greyhound Bus to Madison, Wisconsin so that I could attend the University of Wisconsin. I presently live in a newly built passive house in Newcastle. I have had the good fortune to teach various subjects to children in Maine, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New York, Tennessee and China. I am retired from teaching English as a Second Language in the Brunswick Schools and am lucky to spend my time playing my violin with the MidCoast Symphony Orchestra, practicing yoga, skiing, studying Spanish and Greek, traveling by land and sea with my husband David, and spending time with family. A recent addition to the family is our grandson Walter, known as Wally, who is living close by in Portland with his parents and is roaming the same streets that his great grandfather did as a boy!