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In his intro to the song "It makes a fellow proud to be a soldier," Tom Lehrer says:

The army didn't have any, excuse me, didn't have no official song.

And after that the audience laughs. Why is it funny?

Does the first statement neutrally states that there is "not any official song" and second moderately implies that "there are many songs about army, but all of them are inappropriate"? Or because he corrects grammatically correct statement with double negative? Or something else?

What is the subtle difference in meaning that eludes me?

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  • (I'll put this here for the sake of discussion, from the viewpoint of someone that has no information about the source/writer.) When I read this, The army didn't have any makes me think that zero songs exist. But then excuse me, didn't have no official song makes me think that such a song actually exists, but the speaker loathes it and refuses to acknowledge it as such (in the sense of "You are no hero"). Dec 23, 2021 at 7:55

4 Answers 4

33

It is a dig at the alleged low intelligence of the military personnel. Throughout that song there are sideswipes at the military in general.

Examples:
He couldn't tell a shelter half from an entrenching tool
He comes from Georgia, so doesn't speak the language very well
It is written in the stars he will get his Captain's bars, but he doesn't have enough box tops yet

There are other examples of dislike of the military in Lehrer's work. He talks of his time working with The office of Naval contemplation and the Air Force having its equivalent Up in the air junior birdman song.

It is simply a reference to the alleged use of the ungrammatical Don't have no instead of Doesn't have any by the poorly educated.

The military is not the only group of people depicted as uneducated by Tom Lehrer. A form of comedy that was common then but is not considered to be politically correct nowadays. Consider his song "I want to go back to Dixie" which he describes as The land of the Boll Weevil, where the laws are mediaeval. I could go on.

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  • We had a shelter half when I was growing up (mostly used as a playhouse for my brother and me), so the term (and its association with the Army) is familiar to me.
    – user888379
    Dec 20, 2021 at 14:11
  • 6
    Could add that the joke is the repairing of right into wrong. Dec 20, 2021 at 15:06
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    @YosefBaskin, precisely, as in a mock ad on Garrison Keillor's old Prairie Home Companion radio show, for a dialect academy that boasted of having taught George W. Bush to say "nukular." The joke targets a kind of inverse linguistic snobbery whereby ordinary folk discount discourse that sounds educated. Another example is Higgins's observation in My Fair Lady, that "The moment [an Englishman] speaks he makes some other Englishman despise him": the contempt is directed upwards as well as downwards on the social scale. Dec 20, 2021 at 15:23
  • 6
    This is a good answer but I'm not sure what the last paragraph adds - in particular "I Wanna Go Back To Dixie" does not depict Southerners as stupid but rather as extremely bigoted. (Of course one might fairly consider the latter a subset of the former, but still, the song isn't about anyone's lack of education.)
    – flahr
    Dec 21, 2021 at 1:05
19

The other answers are correct, but they (and the OP) are missing an important piece of context: the first part of the quoted sentence. The full introduction to the song runs as follows:

I have only comparatively recently emerged from the United States Army, so that I am now of course in the Radioactive Reserve. And the usual jokes about the Army aside, one of the many fine things one has to admit is the way that the Army has carried the American democratic ideal to its logical conclusion, in the sense that not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, creed, and color, but also on the grounds of ability. [laughter, applause break]

Be that as it may some of you may recall the publicity a few years ago attendant on the Army's search for an official Army song, to be the counterpart of the Navy's "Anchors Aweigh" and the Air Force's "Up in the Air, Junior Birdmen" song. I, um -- I was in Basic Training at the time, and I recall our Platoon Sergeant, who was an unfrocked Marine -- actually the change of service had come as quite a blow to him, as it meant that he had to memorize a new serial number, which took up most of his time [applause & laughter break] -- at any rate, I recall this Sergeant informing me and my -- roommates -- of this rather deplorable fact, that the Army didn't have any -- excuse me -- "didn't have no official song".

The context, in other words, is that he is making fun of the intelligence of his Platoon Sergeant, who (evidently) attained his rank despite a lack of ability and was not particularly smart. "Didn't have any" is grammatically correct, but an incorrect quotation; "didn't have no" is "correct" in the sense that it faithfully reproduces the Sergeant's words as they were originally spoken, i.e., in a grammatically incorrect way.

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  • 2
    It's still common to insult the intelligence of marines, the current version being a meme about eating crayons.
    – Separatrix
    Dec 23, 2021 at 8:11
7

In proper English, you say "the army didn't have any official song".

Dialects often are used to identify and validate class and community, and you need to speak those dialects to be accepted. In some pidgin dialects often preferred by lower classes, they say "the army didn't have no official song".

A person taught to that dialect, who enters a larger and higher-class world, would often be corrected to use "any".

So the joke is, the soldier has been corrected often enough to know to use "any", and does manage to do it properly. But has also learned the habit of thinking "this is a place I need to correct myself" and does so. However, the soldier self-corrects to the wrong thing.

The soldier's earnest efforts, applied twice and backfiring, is what makes it funny.

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  • 1
    I have observed this effect many times. But I don't think it is occurring here, even in the form of parody. The full quotation from Lehrer's introduction to the song puts the "correction" in the proper context.
    – David K
    Dec 22, 2021 at 23:54
2

As the other answers say, Tom Lehrer is making a joke about how enlisted men in the U.S. Army talked differently. So, if you said “haven’t got any,” you wouldn’t fit in, and he’s joking his old drill sergeant would’ve corrected him—but the opposite of the way his audience thought of as right.

This kind of joke can sometimes be affectionate and nostalgic. He was himself conscripted into the Army for two years. However, he hated it, and his song is very disparaging of the other people in the Army.

It’s important to understand that he was writing at a time, the years between the Korean War and Vietnam War, when the Army was much more lower-class than it is today. There was no draft at the time, and he jokes that the kind of people who would enlist were violent felons who only took that option as an alternative to a prison sentence, and morons who failed elementary school to become the smartest person in Officer Candidate School. The generations who served in the previous three wars were used to making fun of the Army’s many foibles and annoyances, and the types he’s singing about were stock characters.

His song is an exaggerated farce, but it’s making fun of a very real attitude. A decade later, Creedence Clearwater Revival would write a much angrier song, “Fortunate Son,” about how the upper classes made sure their sons never had to serve.

No one would perform a song like Lehrer’s today, and it a comedian did, it would be deeply shocking and offensive, not light-hearted.

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  • I kind of take issue with your aside about Full Metal Jacket. The book (along with this first act of the movie) is about creating killers. Pvt Pyle was not a murderer in the sense that you imply when he arrived there. In the book, the Sgt tells him how proud he is of Pyle as he is being shot.
    – Yorik
    Dec 21, 2021 at 15:29
  • @Yorik That’s a good point. It has been a long time since the United States offered enlistment as an alternative to a prison sentence, and even when it sometimes did, Lehrer is of course exaggerating.
    – Davislor
    Dec 21, 2021 at 15:36
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    I actually had a friend who, as a freshman in college got into "some kind of trouble" and was essentially sentenced by a judge to enlistment in the Marines. This would have been c. 1990 as he was deployed to Kuwait
    – Yorik
    Dec 21, 2021 at 16:25

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