Remembering the woman behind “Charlie on the MTA” — and the CharlieCard

By Daniel Grabauskas

Folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes passed away last week. I offer a personal remembrance.

I never met Ms. Hawes, but I feel a connection to her. She co-authored the folk song, beloved in Boston and beyond, "Charlie on the MTA." By coincidence, last week was the fifth anniversary of the introduction of the CharlieCard. It was unveiled at an event featuring the Kingston Trio at the site of the old Scollay Square Station, steps from what is now Government Center Station. We had a blast, singing along with the Kingston Trio to her tune that they had made famous worldwide since the late 1950s. (See YouTube video.)

KingstonTrio1 As work had been progressing on the new payment system which would eliminate the token and introduce a smart card payment method at the MBTA, we realized that we had to come up with a name for the system. For reasons still unclear to me, many transit systems around the world had settled on sea creatures as "mascots" for their cards. Examples included the Oyster Card in London, the Octopus Card in Hong Kong, and the Orca Card in Seattle.

We did think about the "Lobster Card" or "Lobstah Card," but it seemed more associated with Maine than Massachusetts. The "Cod Card" — or “Cod Cahd” — was another possibility. It would have been an homage to the importance of the cod to our history, but it just didn’t sing, if you will.

New York’s spectacularly unimaginative Metro Card just didn’t inspire, nor did the Chicago Card (from, you guessed it, Chicago).

But following a feature in the Boston Globe’s Starts and Stops column, wherein a number of possibilities were listed, the overwhelming response was in favor of the CharlieCard.

"Charlie on the MTA" was written originally for a Boston mayoral campaign by Ms. Hawes and Jacqueline Steiner while they were living here. The song was a marriage of politics and the T! Perfect. And thanks to the exceptionally creative folks at the T’s marketing department and a local artist, our Charlie was born.

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But if we didn’t have the song… Thank you, Ms. Hawes.

Photo from December 2004: the Kingston Trio (in Red Sox jackets) and, from left to right, Michael Mulhern, MBTA general manager; Dan Grabauskas, secretary of transportation and MBTA Board chairman; Richard Doyle, regional administrator of the Federal Transit Administration; and Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts.