Musical Borrowing
An Annotated Bibliography

Individual record

[+] Dreier, Peter, and Jim Vrabel. “Did He Ever Return?: The Forgotten Story of ‘Charlie and the M.T.A.’” American Music 28 (Spring 2010): 3-43.

The largely forgotten history of the folk song M.T.A. (most famously recorded by the Kingston Trio in 1959) reveals how music can be used as a political tool to popularize radical ideas and how popular culture can purge these radical ideas of their intended meaning. M.T.A. was written in 1949 by the Boston People’s Artists (Sam and Arnold Berman, Al Katz, Jackie Steiner, and Bess Hawes, née Lomax) in support of Massachusetts Progressive Party leader Walter O’Brien Jr. in his campaign for Boston mayor. One of O’Brien’s major positions was a rollback of the fare increase that funded creation of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (M.T.A.) in 1947. While Steiner wrote most of the lyrics, M.T.A. borrowed its tune from The Train That Never Returned by Hawes’s earlier group, The Almanacs, which itself was based on Henry Clay Work’s 1865 song The Ship That Never Returned and Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 song The Wreck of the Old 97. Although O’Brien’s campaign was ultimately unsuccessful (he received just 1% of votes cast in the election), M.T.A. outlived its origins as a campaign song to become a folk standard. The first of a new generation of folk singers to revive M.T.A. was Will Holt, who recorded the song in 1957 and soon after saw it dropped from radio rotation for glorifying the “communist” O’Brien. The Kingston Trio recorded M.T.A. in 1959, adding a spoken introduction, making minor lyric changes, and replacing the reference to the real-life Walter O’Brien with fictional George O’Brien. This new version saw significant commercial success and positive press attention for the Kingston Trio, and it cemented M.T.A. as a folksong classic, especially in Massachusetts. It has since been used by such disparate performers as Celtic punk band the Dropkick Murphys and Republican governor Mitt Romney.

Works: Dropkick Murphys: Skinhead on the M.T.A. (4); Boston People’s Artists, Jackie Steiner (lyricist): M.T.A. (12-16); Almanac Singers: The Train That Never Returned (13-14); Will Holt (performer): M.T.A. (24-26); The Kingston Trio (performers): M.T.A. (26-27)

Sources: Boston People’s Artists, Jackie Steiner (lyricist): M.T.A. (4, 24-27); Almanac Singers: The Train That Never Returned (12-16); Henry Clay Work: The Ship That Never Returned (13); G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter (songwriters), Vernon Dalhart (performer): The Wreck of the Old 97 (13)

Index Classifications: 1900s, Popular

Contributed by: Matthew Van Vleet

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Musical Borrowing and Reworking - - 2024
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