Saturday, January 10, 2009

Evolution Of A Classic II: "The M.T.A. Song" And "The Wreck Of Old 97"

There will always be a special place in my musical heart for the Kingston Trio's performance of "Charlie On The MTA." By the time I first heard the song when it came out in 1959, I had already had two years of classical piano lessons (loved that) but had developed a fascination with guitar both from Jimmie Dodd on the original Mickey Mouse Club and our Chicago local children's show host Win Stracke - "The Uncle Win Show" - who played a great big Martin D-28 and sang in a baritone both bold and mellifluous, if not quite as refined as Cisco Houston's, and with as fine a repertoire of simple folk songs as Burl Ives or Houston himself.

And then one day my commuter father came home with a dark-colored album with three young men seated in matching dark shirts beneath three instruments suspended against a dark background -


- because he loved that odd and oddly funny little song about a guy marooned on the Boston subway for want of a nickel with which to pay a suddenly-imposed exit fare. The song was brash and exuberant, and its tongue-in-cheek humor was apprehendable even to the little boy that I was.

Though my father was basically a big band, jazz, and Sinatra type of music fan, he loved Belafonte and show tunes and classics and even Mantovani - all good music, in fact. But when he and my mother found out that several of their older children enthused wildly over this "new sound" - wise parents that they were, they fed all of our interests by encouraging them, and until we were old enough to afford records with our allowances, a steady stream of Kingston Trio and Chad Mitchell Trio and Clancy Brothers and Newport Folk Festival and Weavers records appeared on birthdays or under Christmas trees or just showed up one day on top of the stereo - and all because of "M.T.A."

I'm sure that all of us old enough to remember that album (and appreciate the lost art of album covers) remember legendary jazz critic Nat Hentoff's liner notes, and his brief explanation of the connection of the song to a Boston election. Articles at the time and subsequently made mention of the fact that the Trio first heard the song from Will Holt, composer of "Lemon Tree" among other things. Now I'm not sure how many people pursued the background beyond that, but the Holt connection in itself is an oddity. I mean, do you remember Will Holt? (from Hootenanny, for example) He was a quiet, skinny, balding guy who was into artsy-craftsy music, his main claim to fame being his teaming with operetta star Martha Schlamme for years singing the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill songbook (on Vanguard - I learned this and bought those records because of the ads on the inner album sleeve). If he's not the last person in the world I can imagine singing "M.T.A." - he's in the bottom two.

The fact that the Trio got the song and turned it into a pretty darn successful single (one of their few - I think it reached #16 or so on the Billboard charts) is all that matters - except for the song's roots and branches and - here's the kicker - its odd connection to "Tom Dooley."

We all know that Bess Lomax Hawes was the daughter of the great collector John A. Lomax and sister of Alan, that she was a friend of Pete Seeger and Lee Hays and Woody Guthrie, and that she was with them one of the Almanac Singers, one of the first (if not the very first) actual folk groups of city people doing songs from the country's traditions. Hawes and Jacqueline Steiner wrote "The M.T.A. Song" as they called it in support of the candidacy for mayor of Boston of one Walter A. O'Brien, a former city councilman and member of the Progressive Party. O'Brien apparently couldn't afford the normal newspaper ads and campaign flyers, so he had Steiner and Hawes and other local folkies wander around the city performing the song. As we all know, it didn't help, and O'Brien's last-place finish in a field of five candidates was the end of his brief but colorful political career.

Nick Reynolds acknowledged on a number of occasions that the KT changed Walter's name to "George" to avoid association with the Progressives, who had been branded as "fellow travelers" of the Communists by the Red Channels scare group of the earlier 50s. One look at what happened to the Weavers was all the Trio needed to warn them off possible controversy.

So here they are, in a performance of most of the song, the common practice of the 50s as we all remember to cut down the length of hit songs to fit an allotted time slot:

Steiner and Hawes' immediate antecedent for part of the song (the verses) was "The Wreck Of Old 97," one of those early 20th century train songs that, like "Casey Jones" and "John Henry," was based on a real incident - the careening of the eponymous train off of a trestle in Virginia in 1903. Now who actually wrote this song (based on "The Ship That Never Returned," below) is in doubt, but the copyright belonged to G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter - the same Grayson who was related to the Grayson of the "Tom Dooley" song, the same Grayson and Whitter who copyrighted first that selfsame song, later adapted by Frank Warner and Frank Profitt, heard and published by Alan Lomax (small world, isn't it?) - and discovered by Bob, Nick, and Dave. That makes Grayson and Whitter the god parents of the Kingston Trio's two most famous songs. So what does "Old 97" sound like? No one better than Johnny Cash to answer that:

Or a little more countryish from legend Hank Snow:

"Old 97" was in turn based on a similar song by a Henry Work written in 1865 and called "The Ship That Never Returned." The basic melody line is about the same as "97," but Work's song has something that "97" does not - a chorus, one that reads -

Did she never return? She never returned,
Her fate, it is yet unlearned,
Though for years and years there were fond ones watching
Yet the ship she never returned.

And that explains the Steiner/Hawes chorus.

Folksinger John White of Newfoundland has a fine version of "The Ship" song:

The late Bob Gibson had great fun with the tune and turned it into "Super Skier," performed here with characteristic comedic brilliance by the Chad Mitchell Trio, who as you'll see gives a nod to the KT at the end:

This the very early, Kapp Records era CMT - and that is Jim (Roger) McGuinn on banjo.

There were other parodies, too - one a kind of kid thing that had some mostly unprintable versions, though here's a sanitized one -

I was goin' down the hill goin' 90 miles an hour when the chain on my bicycle broke

I was scratched all over from the rocks and the gravel, and punctured to death by the spokes.

Bob Haworth has a delightful follow-up to "M.T.A." called "M.T.A. Revisited," but I have no video of that yet - hope to soon and will post it if I can get it.

I have to say, though, that I prefer the image of Charlie as a kind of American Flying Dutchman, riding forever 'neath the streets of Boston, and that some day when I'm taking what is now the MBTA...

Appendix - More Fun Videos

The Original Album Cut With Cool Pictures Of The "T"

The Famous But Seldom Heard By Normal People 'Dropkick Murphys' "Skinhead On
- not too offensive...

Dutch Folk Group Harmony Glen With Tenor Banjo

An Odd Accordion Version That Has Garnered 40,000 Views On YouTube By Brian Dewan

From Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour - Er - Fantasy Camp - Two Pros, Me, And A
Chorus of 300

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