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Double, Triple and Quadruple Negatives
Using Ungrammatical Country Music in ESL Classes?

Johnny Cash is perhaps the elder statesman of country music today. His songs evoke feelings deep within American culture and can be--if used in moderation--very helpful to English learners who want to identify more closely with the unique spirit of this great land.

One song on Cash's recent "Solitary Man" album is a rendition of a song popularized 100 years ago by Eggbert Williams, "Nobody." The words are enough to drive an English teacher right up the wall.

When life seems full of clouds and rain,
and I'm full of nothing but pain,
who soothes my thumping, bumping brain?

When wintertime comes, with its snow and sleet,
and me with hunger and cold feet,
who says, "Here's two bits, go and eat"?

CHORUS: Well, I ain't never done nothing to nobody.
I ain't never got nothing from nobody, no time.
And, until I get something from somebody sometime,
I don't intend to do nothing for nobody, no time.

When summertime comes, all warm and clear,
and my friends see me drawing near,
who says, "Come on in and have a beer"?

Well, one time when things was looking bright,
I started to whittling on a stick one night.
Who said, "Hey, that's dynamite."

Repeat chorus several times.

These triple and quadruple negatives make the English "no double negative" rule quite simple by contrast. Here is one way to use the song.

1. Students listen to the entire song (about two and a half minutes).

2. Students then are given a minute or two to come up with two or three questions each. The questions can be about vocabulary or content.

3. Students call out their questions while the teacher writes them on the white board.

4. The class listens to the song again, focusing on finding answers to their questions.

5. Students are asked to respond to the song by writing their impressions. In this case, they were given about four minutes to compose their responses.

Here are some of their thoughts:

Sometimes, people make their life pass without connecting others. Everybody, however, lives together and effect on each other regardless of intention. He, the singer of this song, also couldn't acknowledge his role without realizing how important it is hoping that people do the role for them. But after experienced that from somebody, he could take-over him about it. (Female from Korea)

I feel sorry for him because whether he did or he wanted to share, he had nobody. It is very difficult to live without anybody's accompany. When he needed advice, nobody could give him any word. (Female from Taiwan)

When I heard this song, first, I didn't know the meaning perfectly. Just I think this song's melody is good. But when I realize that song's meaning a little, I feel that guy is poor. (Female from Korea)

This song makes me think about a lonely and desperate man who lost something. May be he lost a loved-one or something in his soul, so he feels alone. May be he did something bad against the society so everybody avoids him. He can also be a beggar trying to survive. (Male from France)

This song makes me blue. Because its song text contains clouds and sleet. However the song has the opposite site. I love snow, so the world which is covered with snow is great scene. (Male from Korea)

I think this song is difficult to understand about lyrics. He looks like very heavy his life. He looks very lonely and he has dark life. Now I didn't listen to this song evrything. So I wanna listen again then I try to understand about his mind. (Female from Korea)

The singer feels his life with full of suffering, thus he wants to be soothen. However, "nobody" who can take care of is around him. Therefore, he feels lonely as well as painful. (Male from Korea)

"Lonely" is a hard thing to pass. Nobody can live without friends. When we feel sorrowful, only our family and friends who stand with us. Only love can overcome cold-thilled feelings. (Female from Taiwan)

We feel the isolation and try to find the goal that we never feel that. And nobody knows where the goal is. This is the permanent theme of human beings. But the most important thing is that not only I but also you feel this complecated feeling, thus we can help each other. "We're not alone." (Female from Japan)

This song make me think about, that we should always tray to keep on friendship with another people, to be nice to them, helpful, because then we can stay lonely, as the main in the song. I hope, this will never happen to me. Lonyles is the worse thing in the world could be. (Female from Slovakia)

I think the song have a strong message, for people who doesn't care for the others. If you hear with attention the singer explane how hard it's the life when you don't have help and nobody is worried for you. (Male from Bolivia)

He is singing about his situation mentally. He seems to be cast away and to be seperated from other people. He feels solitude severely and He strongly needs other people's attention as like. (Male from Korea)

I can't understand that lonly is negative feeling. I never feel lonly in my life. Sometimes I really wanna be lonly guy same as this guy. (Male from Japan)

He has spent his life lonely. I don't think it is because of he likes spending time by himself. I guess he has never tried to communicate with others, but he's just waited until somebody call him. Don't wait! You go first! (Female from Japan)

The singer seems excessively solitary. On the other hand, he accepted that he also didn't do "a lot" of favors to anybody. So...He lived in the world of lonely and uncaring people. (Female from Russia)

He mentions "nobody" frequently, because he feels like a nobody. He himself is the main character of the song. He did this song to upset people who do not want to listen to country songs. (Male from Germany)

Story by Robb Scott