Sunday, August 31, 2008

It's a Charlie!

He had not been in Boston for the last decade, so perhaps we should excuse him.

Malcolm bought his ticket from the machine at Andrew on the Red line. Only then did he realise the profound significance. He was holding a "Charlie".

Are you sitting comfortably? It's story time!

Sixty years back, Walter A. O'Brien stood for election as Mayor of Boston. For the Progressive Party.

Now, Malcolm puts this as gently as he can, but sensitive souls should look away now.

The Progressives were actual ... err ... lefties. In UK terms, they could have existed quite happily to the right of Nye Bevan in Clem Attlee's Labour Party. In the growing US Red Menace (©Tricky Dicky Nixon), they were way beyond the Pale.

O'Brien could not finance publicity to match the two main parties, so he recruited the WPA singers and song-writers to aid and abet him. In fact, the names on the credit list for this song are Jacqueline Berman and Bess Lomax Hawes: sister of the great Alan Lomax, and former member of the Almanac Singers with Woody and Pete. This is the royalty of the folk-song revival. There is a full on-line exegesis of the song, including several excised verses: the point of departure there is public transport, rather than the music.

Inevitably, O'Brien finished bottom of the poll, and furthermore was on the hard end of a ten-dollar fine for breaching the peace of Boston, when he toured the town with a loudspeaker van. The song, though, had already entered the public consciousness and featured as a Bill Hanley cartoon for the Boston Globe:

O'Brien now retreats from Malcolm's narrative, to the great state of Maine, where for a further forty years he fulfilled a fruitful life as a librarian and book-seller.

But Charlie endures

Come 1958, the Kingston Trio went gold with Tom Dooley: they were an instant (and even deserved) phenomenon which marked the international arrival of the "Folk Revival".

Somehow the Kingstons picked up the song. Don't mock it, kids, this is as good as it got in the Dansette generation:

One credible version is that the story came to Bess Lomax and Jacqueline Berman Steiner from a San Francisco bar-owner known as "Specs", who cut him in for a third of the royalties. "Specs" passed the song to Will Holt (the adaptor of a Brazilian original into Lemon Tree), who recorded it in the 1950s. The good bigots of Boston objected to a song which lauded a "Commie" (O'Brien was never a Party member); and the disk was suppressed. The Kingstons (apart from that YouTube version above, where they are emphatic with the "Charlie O'Brien") seem to address just that problem in different recordings of the song, his name is replaced by "George" or even by "someone".

Charlie's climb to respectability was complete when the (now) MBTA launched the card in his honour. They roused up the legacy Kingstons (who are two-thirds ex-Limeliters), rigged them in Red Sox blousons, matched them with Governor Mitt Romney, and did a presentation at "the former Scollay Square" station (now Government Center):


The Rough Guide to Boston (page 187 of the fifth, April 2008, edition Malcolm has here: it's the one with Beacon Hill on the cover) lists The Muddy Charles Pub as one to visit. Malcolm feels you should not bother. The clues are in the description:
Right on the MIT campus, this popular student pub has incredible waterfront views, cheap pitchers of beer, and a casual, grandfatherly vibe ...
Well, it's a long-way back from the river, which is out of view when the trees are in leaf. It's effectively a single large room (do you want to drink in a lecture room?). The beer is cheap, but choice is severely limited. It's almost impossible to find: the Rough Guide helpfully says "MIT's building 50"; but no student knows where that could be, except as a vague waved finger. And it's likely to be full of MBA students on a sandwich course. After those pitchers, you'll eventually find the toilets, a small hike away in the basement; and very definitely student bogs. Sphere: Related Content

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