Songs of location and history: Charlie on the MTA


Songs about location and history evoke nostalgia to those who have travelled or lived in these places. Long-time Boston residents know the song “Charlie on the MTA” but newcomers are curious:

  • Who was Charlie?
  • What does MTA stand for?
  • Why couldn’t Charlie get off the train?
  • Why didn’t his wife give him the money to get off the train rather than throw him a sandwich?
  • Is that why the subway card is known as a Charlie Card? Unlike the Oyster Card in London and the OV Chip Card in the Netherlands, you only need to swipe the Charlie Card when you enter the bus, trolley (tram), metro, or commuter rail (i.e. not needed when you exit).
  • Is Charlie related to the River Charles that divides Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts?

The first subway system in America was built for Boston (not New York) in 1897. Here is some background information about Charlie, MTA, and how the song came about. The history of Boston’s Mass Transit Authority (MTA) now known as MBTA is fascinating.

Interestingly, “Charlie on the MTA” has come to mean someone who is caught in the city’s bureaucracy or a sports figure who left and never returned.

I was delighted to learn how easy it is to play and sing the song “Charlie on the MTA” :

  • only three chords (C, F, G7 — or transpose to any I, IV, V and/or V7 in the key of your choosing)
  • the same sequence (progression) for verse as is for chorus though the melody is different
  • the chord sequence is easy to memorise: alternating F and G7 with C chords in-between.
  • There are spoken shouts of “Poor Charlie!” and “What a pity!” for audience participation.

Here’s my one-page song sheet of “Charlie on the MTA” — I tell my beginning ukulele students to use G7 instead of G throughout. It’s the perfect voice range for me. After the last verse, it’s nice to sing a cappella for the chorus the second time and end with a third repeat of the chorus accompanied.

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Author: BLOGmaiden

As one of the earliest bloggers (since 1999), I enjoy meeting people who embrace "out-of-the-box" thinking and fear not the unknown. I believe in collaboration for sustainability because it increases stakeholder value.

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