Thirty-six years ago a young man, about twenty-five years of age, of a commanding height, — six feet full, the heels of his boots not included in the reckoning, — and dressed in scrupulous keeping with the fashion of the time, might have been seen sauntering idly along one of the principal streets of Cincinnati. To the few who could claim acquaintance with him he was known as an actor, playing at the time referred to a short engagement as light comedian in a theatre of that city. He does not seem to have attained to any noticeable degree of eminence in his profession, but he had established for himself a reputation among jolly fellows in a social way. He could tell a story, sing a gong, and dance a hornpipe, after a style which, however unequal to complete success on the stage, proved, in private performance to select circles rendered appreciative by accessory refreshments, famously triumphant always. If it must be confessed that he was deficient in the more profound qualities, it is not to be inferred that he was destitute of all the distinguishing, though shallower, virtues of character. He had the merit, too, of a proper appreciation of his own capacity; and his arms never rose above that capacity. As a superficial man he dealt with superficial things, and his dealings were marked by tact and shrewdness. In his sphere he was proficient, and he kept his wits upon the alert for everything that might be turned to professional and profitable use. Thus it was that, as he sauntered along one of the main thoroughfares of Cincinnati, as has been written, his attention was suddenly arrested by a voice ringing clear and full above the noises of the street, and giving utterance, in an unmistakable dialect, to the refrain of a song to this effect: —
Turn about an’ wheel about an’ do jis so,
An’ ebery time I turn about I jump Jim Crow.
Struck by the peculiarities of the performance, so unique in style, matter, and “character” of delivery, the player listened on. Were not these elements—was the suggestion of the instant—which might admit of higher than mere street or stable-yard development? As a national or “race” illustration, behind the footlights, might not “Jim Crow” and a black face tickle the fancy of pit and circle, as well as the “Sprig of Shillalah” and a red nose? Out of the suggestion leaped the determination; and so it chanced that the casual hearing of a song trolled by a negro stage-driver, lolling lazily on the box of his vehicle, gave origin to a school of music destined to excel in popularity all others, and to make the name of the obscure actor, T. D. Rice, famous.
As his engagement at Cincinnati had nearly expired, Rice deemed it expedient to postpone a public venture in the newly projected line until the opening of a fresh engagement should assure him opportunity to share fairly the benefit expected to grow out of the experiment. This engagement had already been entered into; and accordingly, shortly after, in the autumn of 1830, he left Cincinnati for Pittsburg.
The old theatre of Pittsburg occupied the site of the present one, on Fifth Street. It was an unpretending structure, rudely built of boards, and of moderate proportions, but sufficient, nevertheless, to satisfy the taste and secure the comfort of the few who dared to face consequences and lend patronage to an establishment under the ban of the Scotch-Irish Calvinists. Entering upon duty at the “Old Drury” of the “Birmingham of America,” Rice prepared to take advantage of his opportunity. There was a negro in attendance of Griffith’s Hotel, on Wood Street, named Cuff, — an exquisite specimen of his sort, — who won a precarious subsistence by letting his open mouth as a mark for boys to pitch pennies into, at three paces, and by carrying the trunks of passengers from the steamboats to the hotels. Cuff was precisely the subject for Rice’s purpose. Slight persuasion induced him to accompany the actor to the theatre, where he was led through the private entrance, and quietly ensconced behind the scenes. After the play, Rice, having shaded his own countenance to the “contraband” hue, ordered Cuff to disrobe, and proceeded to invest himself in the cast-off apparel. When the arrangements were complete, the bell rang, and Rice, habited in an old coat forlornly dilapidated, with a pair of shoes composed equally of patches and places for patches on his feet, and wearing a coarse straw hat in a melancholy condition of rent and collapse over a dense black wig of matted moss, waddled into view. The extraordinary apparition produced an instant effect. The crash of peanuts ceased in the pit, and through the circles passed a murmur and a bustle of liveliest expectation. The orchestra opened with a short prelude, and to its accompaniment Rice began to sing, delivering the first line by way of introductory recitative: —
O, Jim Crow’s come to town, as you all must know,
An’ he wheel about, he turn about, he do jis so,
An’ ebery time he wheel about he jump Jim Crow.
The effect was electric. Such a thunder of applause as followed was never heard before within the shell of that old theatre. With each succeeding couplet and refrain the uproar was renewed, until presently, when the performer, gathering courage from the favorable temper of his audience, ventured to improvise matter for his distiches from familiarly known local incidents, the demonstration were deafening.
Now it happened that Cuff, who meanwhile was crouching in dishabille under concealment of a projecting flat behind the performer, by some means received intelligence, at this point, of the near approach of a steamer to the Monongahela Wharf. Between himself and others of his color in the same line of business, and especially as regarded a certain formidable competitor called Ginger, there existed an active rivalry in the baggage-carrying business. For Cuff to allow Ginger the advantage of an undisputed descent upon the luggage of the approaching vessel would be not only to forfeit all “considerations” from the passengers, but, by proving him a laggard in his calling, to cast a damaging blemish upon his reputation. Liberally as he might lend himself to a friend, it could not be done at that sacrifice. After a minute or two of fidgety waiting for the song to end, Cuff’s patience could endure no longer, and, cautiously hazarding a glimpse of his profile beyond the edge of the flat, he called in a hurried whisper: “Massa Rice, Massa Rice, must have my clo’se! Massa Griffif wants me, — steamboat’s comin’!”
A still more successful couplet brought a still more tempestuous response and the invocation of the baggage-carrier was unheard and unheeded. Driven to desperation, and forgetful in the emergency of every sense of propriety, Cuff, in ludicrous undress as he was, started from his place, rushed upon the stage, and, laying his hand upon the performer’s shoulder, called out excitedly: “Massa Rice, Massa Rice, gi’ me nigga’s hat, — nigga’s coat, — nigga’s shoes, — gi’ me nigga’s t’ings! Massa Griffif wants ’im, — STEAMBOAT’S COMIN’!!”
The incident was the touch, in the mirthful experience of that night, that passed endurance. Pit and circles were one scene of such convulsive merriment that it was impossible to proceed in the performance; and the extinguishment of the footlights, the fall of the curtain, and the throwing wide of the doors for exit, indicated that the entertainment was ended.
Such were the circumstances—authentic in every particular—under which the first work of the distinct art of Negro Minstrelsy was presented.
Next day found the song of Jim Crow, in one style of delivery or another, on everybody’s tongue. Clerks hummed it serving customers at shop counters, artisans thundered it at their toils, to the time-beat of sledge and of tilt-hammer, boys whistled it on the streets, ladies warbled it in parlors, and house-maids repeated it to the clink of crockery in kitchens. Rice made up his mind to profit further by its popularity: he determined to publish it. Mr. W. C. Peters, afterwards of Cincinnati, and well known as a composer and publisher, was at that time a music-dealer on Market Street in Pittsburg. Rice, ignorant himself of the simplest elements of musical science, waited upon Mr. Peters, and solicited his co-operation in the preparation of his song for the press. Some difficulty was experienced before Rice could be induced to consent to the correction of certain trifling informalities, rhythmical mainly, in his melody; but, yielding finally, the air as it now stands, with a pianoforte accompaniment by Mr. Peters, was put upon paper. The manuscript was put into the hands of Mr. John Newton, who reproduced it on stone with an elaborately embellished title-page, including a portrait of the subject of the song, precisely as it has been copied through succeeding editions to the present time. It was the first specimen of lithography ever executed in Pittsburg.
Jim Crow was repeated nightly throughout the season at the theatre; and when that was ended, Beale’s Long Room, at the corner of Third and Market streets, was engaged for rehearsals exclusively in the Ethiopian line. “Clar de Kitchen” soon appeared as a companion piece, followed speedily by “Lucy Long.” “Sich a Gittin’ up Stairs,” “Long-Tail Blue,” and so on, until quite a repertoire was at command from which to select for an evening’s entertainment.
Rice remained in Pittsburg some two years. He then visited Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, whence he sailed for England, where he met with high favor in his novel character, married, and remained for some time. He then returned to New York, and shortly afterwards died.
With Rice’s retirement his art seems to have dropped into disuse as a feature of theatrical entertainment, and thenceforward, for many years, to have survived only in the performances of circuses and menageries. Between acts the extravaganzaist in cork and wool would appear, and to the song of “Coal-Black Rose,” or “Jim along Joe,” or “Sittin’ on a Rail,” command with the clown and monkey, full share of admiration in the arena. At first he performed solus, and to the accompaniment of the “show” band; but the school was progressive; couples presently appeared, and, dispensing with the aid of foreign instruments, delivered their melodies to the more appropriate music of the banjo. To the banjo, in a short time, were added the bones. The art had now outgrown its infancy, and, disdaining a subordinate existence, boldly seceded from the society of harlequin and the tumblers, and met the world as an independent institution. Singers organized themselves into quartet bands; added a fiddle and tambourine to their instruments—perhaps we should say implements—of music; introduced the hoe-down and the conundrum to fill up the intervals of performance; rented halls, and, peregrinating from city to city and from town to town, went on and prospered.
One of the earliest companies of this sort was organized and sustained under the leadership of Nelson Kneass, who, while skillful in his manipulations of the banjo, was quite an accomplished pianist besides, as well as a favorite ballad-singer. He had some pretensions as a composer, but has left his name identified with no work of any interest. His company met with such success in Pittsburg, that its visits were repeated from season to season, until about the year 1845, when Mr. Murphy, the leading caricaturist, determining to resume the business in private life which he had laid aside on going upon the stage, the company was disbanded.
Up to this period, if negro minstrelsy had made some progress, it was not marked by much improvement. Its charm lay essentially in its simplicity, and to give it full development, retaining unimpaired meanwhile such original excellences as Nature in Sambo shapes and inspires, was the task of the time. But the task fell into bungling hands. The intuitive utterance of the arts was misapprehended or perverted altogether. Its naïve misconceits were construed into coarse blunders; its pleasing incongruities were resolved into meaningly jargon. Gibberish became the staple of its composition. Slang phrases and crude jests, all odds and ends of vulgar sentiment, without regard to the idiosyncrasies of the negro, were caught up, jumbled together into rhyme, and, rendered into the lingo presumed to be genuine, were ready for the stage. The wit of the performance was made to consist in quibble and equivoke, and in the misuse of language, after the fashion, but without the refinement, of Mrs. Partington. The character of the music underwent a change. Original airs were composed from time to time, but the songs were more generally adaptations of tunes in vogue among Hard-Shell Baptists in Tennessee and at Methodist camp-meetings in Kentucky, and of backwoods, melodies, such as had been invented for native ballads by “settlement” masters and brought into general circulation by stage-drivers, wagoners, cattle-drovers, and other such itinerants of earlier days. Music of the concert-room was also drafted into the service, and selections from the inferior operas, with the necessary mutilations of the text, of course; so that the whole school of negro minstrelsy threatened a lapse, when its course of decline was suddenly and effectually arrested.
A certain Mr. Andrews, dealer in confections, cakes, and ices, being stirred by a spirit of enterprise, rented in the year 1845; a second-floor hall on Wood Street, Pittsburg, supplied it with seats and small tables, advertised largely, employed cheap attractions, — living statues, songs, dances, &c., — erected a stage, hired a piano, and, upon the dissolution of his band, engaged the services of Nelson Kneass as musician and manager. Admittance was free, the ten-cent ticket required at the door being received at its cost value within towards the payment of whatever might be called for at the tables. To keep alive the interest of the enterprise, premiums were offered, from time to time, of a bracelet for the best conundrum, a ring with a ruby setting for the best comic song, and a golden chain for the best sentimental song. The most and perhaps only really valuable reward—a genuine and very pretty silver cup, exhibited night after night, beforehand—was promised to the author of the best original negro song, to be presented before a certain date, and to be decided upon by a committee designated for the purpose by the audience at that time.
Quite a large array of competitors entered the lists; but the contest would be hardly worthy of mention, save as it was the occasion of the first appearance of him who was to prove the reformer of his art, and to a sketch of whose career the foregoing pages are chiefly preliminary.
Stephen Collins Foster was born in Alleghany, Pennsylvania, on the 4th of July, 1826. He was the youngest child of his father, William B. Foster, — originally a merchant of Pittsburg, and afterwards Mayor of his native city, member of the State Legislature, and a Federal officer under President Buchanan, with whom he was closely connected by marriage. The evidences of a musical capacity of no common order were apparent in Stephen at an early period. Going into a shop, one day, when about seven years old, he picked up a flageolet, the first he had ever seen, and comprehending, after an experiment or two, the order of the scale of the instrument, was able in a few minutes, uninstructed, to play any of the simple tunes within the octave with which he was acquainted. A Thespian society, composed of boys in their higher teens, was organized in Alleghany, into which Stephen, although but in his ninth year, was admitted, and of which, from his agreeable rendering of the favorite airs of the day, he soon became the leading attraction.
At thirteen years of age, he made his first attempt at composition, producing for a public occasion at the seminary in Athens, Ohio, where he was a student at the time, the “Tioga Waltz,” which, although quite a pretty affair, he never thought worthy of preservation. In the same year, shortly afterwards, he composed music to the song commencing, “Sadly to mine heart appealing,” now embraced in the list of his publications, but not brought out until many years later.
Stephen was a boy of delicate constitution, not addicted to the active sports or any of the more vigorous habits of boys of his age. His only companions were a few intimate friends, and, thus secluded, his character naturally took a sensitive, meditative cast, and his growing disrelish for severer tasks was confirmed. As has been intimated, he entered as a pupil at Athens; but as the course of instruction in that institution was not in harmony with his tastes, he soon withdrew, applying himself afterwards to the study of the French and German languages (a ready fluency in both of which he finally acquired), and especially to the art dearer than all other studies. A recluse, owning and soliciting no guidance but that of his text-book, in the quiet of the woods, or, if that were inaccessible, the retirement of his chamber, he devoted himself to this art.
At the age of sixteen he composed and published the song, “Open thy Lattice, Love,” which was admired, but did not meet with extraordinary success. In the year following he went to Cincinnati, entering the counting-room of his brother, and discharging the duties of his place with faithfulness and ability. His spare hours were still devoted, however, to his favorite pursuit, although his productions were chiefly preserved in manuscript, and kept for the private entertainment of his friends. He continued with his brother nearly three years.
At the time Mr. Andrews of Pittsburg offered a silver cup for the best original negro song, Mr. Morrison Foster sent to his brother Stephen a copy of the advertisement announcing the fact, with a letter urging him to become a competitor for the prize. These saloon entertainments occupied a neutral ground, upon which eschewers of theatrical delights could meet with the abetters of play-house amusements, — a consideration of ruling importance in Pittsburg, where so many of the sterling population carry with them to this day, by legitimate inheritance, the stanch old Cameronian fidelity to Presbyterian creed and practice. Morrison, believing that these concerts would afford an excellent opportunity for the genius of his brother to appeal to the public, persisted in urging him to compete for the prize, until Stephen, who at first expressed a dislike to appear under such circumstances, finally yielded, and in due time forwarded a melody entitled, “’Way down South, whar de Corn grows.” When the eventful night came, the various pieces in competition were rendered to the audience by Nelson Kneass to his own accompaniment on the piano. The audience expressed by their applause a decided preference for Stephen’s melody; but the committee appointed to sit in judgment decided in favor of some one else, himself and his song never heard of afterwards, and the author of “Way down South” forfeited the cup. But Mr. Kneass appreciated the merit of the composition, and promptly, next morning, made application at the proper office for a copyright in his own name as author, when Mr. Morrison Foster, happening in at the moment, interposed, and frustrated the discreditable intention.
This experiment of Foster’s, if it fell short of the expectation of his friends, served, notwithstanding, a profitable purpose, for it led him to a critical investigation of the school of music to which it belonged. This school had been—was yet—unquestionably popular. To what, then, was it indebted for its captivating points? It was to its truth to Nature in her simplest and most childlike mood.
Settled as to theory, Foster applied himself to the task of its exemplification. Two attempts were made while he yet remained in Cincinnati, the pencil-drafts of which, however, were laid aside for the time being in his portfolio. His shrinking nature held timidly back at the thought of a venture before the public; and so the case stood until he reappeared in Pittsburg.
The Presidential campaign of 1844 was distinguished by political song-singing. Clubs for that purpose were organized in all the cities and towns and hamlets, — clubs for the platform, clubs for the street, clubs for the parlor, Whig clubs, Democratic clubs. Ballads innumerable to airs indefinite, new and old, filled the hand, — Irish ballads, German ballads, Yankee ballads, and, preferred over all, negro ballads. So enthusiastic grew the popular feeling in this direction, that, when the November crisis was come and gone, the peculiar institution, would not succumb to the limitation, but lived on. Partisan temper faded out; the fires of strife died down, but clubs sat perseveringly in their places, and in sounds, if not in sentiment, attuned to the old melodies, kept up the practice of the mad and merry time.
Among other organizations that thus lingered on was one, composed of half a dozen young men, since grown into graver habits, with Foster—home again, and a link once more in the circle of his intimates—at its head. The negro airs were still the favorites; but the collection, from frequent repetition, at length began to grow stale. One night, as a revival measure for the club, and as an opportunity for himself, Foster hinted that, with their permission, he would offer for trial an effort of his own. Accordingly he set to work; and at their next meeting laid before them a song entitled “Louisiana Belle.” The piece elicited unanimous applause. Its success in the club-room opened to it a wider field, each member acting as an agent of dissemination outside, so that in the course of a few nights the song was sung in almost every parlor in Pittsburg. Foster then brought to light his portfolio specimens, since universally known as “Uncle Ned,” and “O Susanna!” The favor with which these latter were received surpassed even that rewarding the “Louisiana Belle.” Although limited to the one slow process of communication, — from mouth to ear, — their fame spread far and wide, until from the drawing-rooms of Cincinnati they were introduced into its concert-halls, and there became known to Mr. W. C. Peters, who at once addressed letters requesting copies for publication. These were cheerfully furnished by the author. He did not look for remuneration. For “Uncle Ned,” which first appeared (in 1847), he received none; “O Susanna!” soon followed, and “imagine my delight,” he writes, “in receiving one hundred dollars in cash! Though this song was not successful,” he continues, “yet the two fifty-dollar bills I received for it had the effect of starting me on my present vocation of song-writer.” In pursuance of this decision, he entered into arrangements with new publishers, chiefly with Firth, Pond, & Co. of New York, set himself to work, and began to pour out his productions with astonishing rapidity.
Out of the list, embracing about one hundred and fifty of his songs, the most flattering received among his negro melodies were those already enumerated, followed by “Nelly was a Lady,” in 1849; “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Camptown Races,” in 1850; “Old Folks at Home,” in 1851; “Massa’s in the Cold Ground,” in 1852; “O Boys, carry me ’long,” in 1853; “Hard Times come again no more,” in 1854; “Way down South,” and “O Lemuel,” in 1858; “Old Black Joe,” in 1860; and (noticeable only as his last in that line) “Don’t bet your Money on the Shanghai,” in 1861.
In all these compositions Foster adheres scrupulously to his theory adopted at the outset. His verses are distinguished by a naïveté characteristic and appropriate, but consistent at the same time with common sense. Enough of the negro dialect is retained to preserve distinction, but not to offend. The sentiment is given in plain phrase and under homely illustration; but it is a sentiment nevertheless. The melodies are of twin birth literally with the verses, for Foster thought in tune as he traced in rhyme, and traced in rhyme as he thought in tune. Of easy modulation, severely simple in their structure, his airs have yet the graceful proportions, animated with the fervor, unostentatious but all-subduing, of certain of the old hymns (not the chorals) derived from our fathers of a hundred years ago.
That he had struck upon the true way to the common heart, the successes attending his efforts surely demonstrate. His songs had an unparalleled circulation. The commissions accruing to the author on the sales of “Old Folks” alone amounted to fifteen thousand dollars. For permission to have his name printed on its title-page, as an advertising scheme, Mr. Christy paid five hundred dollars. Applications were unceasing from the various publishers of the country for some share, at least, of his patronage, and upon terms that might have seduced almost any one else; but the publishers with whom he originally engaged had won his esteem and Foster adhered to them faithfully. Artists of the highest distinction favored him with their friendship; and Herz, Sivori, Ole Bull, Thalberg, were alike ready to approve his genius, and to testify that approval in the choice of his melodies as themes about which to weave their witcheries of embellishment. Complimentary letters from men of literary note poured in upon him; among others, one full of generous encouragement from Washington Irving, dearly prized and carefully treasured to the day of Foster’s death. Similar missives reached him from across the seas, — from strangers and from travellers in lands far remote; and he learned that while “O Susanna!” was the familiar song of the cottager of the Clyde, “Uncle Ned” was known to the dweller in tents among the Pyramids.
Of his sentimental songs, “Ah, may the Red Rose live always!” “Maggie by my Side,” “Jennie with the Light-Brown Hair,” “Willie, we may have missed you,” “I see her still in my Dreams,” “Wilt thou be gone, Love” (a duet, the words adapted from a well-known scene in Romeo and Juliet), and “Come where my Love lies dreaming” (quartet), are among the leading favorites. “I see her still in my Dreams” appeared in 1861, shortly after the death of his mother, and is a tribute to the memory of her to whom he was devotedly attached. The verses to most of these airs—to the successful ones—were of his own composition. Indeed, he could seldom satisfy himself in his “settings” of the stanzas of others. If the metrical and symmetrical features of the lines in hand chanced to disagree with his conception of the motion and proportion befitting in a musical interpretation; if the sentiment were one that failed, whether from lack of appreciation or of sympathy on his part, to command absolute approval; or if the terms employed were not of a precise thread and tension, — if they were wanting, however minutely, in vibratory qualities, — of commensurate extent would be the failure attending the translation.
The last three years of his life Mr. Foster passed in New York. During all that time, his efforts, with perhaps one exception, were limited to the production of songs of a pensive character. The loss of his mother seems to have left an ineffaceable impression of melancholy upon his mind, and inspired such songs as “I dream of my Mother,” “I’ll be Home To-Morrow,” “Leave me with my Mother,” and “Bury me in the Morning.” He died after a brief illness, on the 13th of January, 1864. His remains reached Pittsburg on the 20th, and were conveyed to Trinity Church, where on the day following, in the presence of a large assembly, appropriate and impressive ceremonies took place, the choral services being sustained by a company of his former friends and associates. His body was then carried to the Alleghany Cemetery, and, to the music of “Old Folks at Home,” finally committed to the grave.
Mr. Foster was married, on the 22d of July, 1850, to Miss Jane D. McDowell of Pittsburg, who, with her daughter and only child, Marian, twelve years of age at the date of his death, still survives him. He was of rather less than medium height, of slight frame, with parts well proportioned, and showing to advantage in repose, although not entirely so in action. His shoulders were marked by a slight droop, — the result of a habit of walking with his eyes fixed upon the ground a pace or two in advance of his feet. He nearly always when he ventured out, which was not often, walked alone. Arrived at the street-crossings, he would frequently pause, raise himself, cast a glance at the surroundings, and if he saw an acquaintance nod to him in token of recognition, and then, relapsing into the old posture, resume his way. At such times, — while he did not repel, he took no pains to invite society. He was entertaining in conversation, although a certain hesitancy, from want of words and not from any organic defect, gave a broken style to his speech. For his study he selected a room in the top-most story of his house, farthest removed from the street, and was careful to have the floor of the apartment, and the avenues of approach to it, thickly carpeted, to exclude as effectually as possible all noises, inside as well as outside of his own premises. The furniture of this room consisted of a chair, a lounge, a table, a music-rack, and a piano. From the sanctum so chosen, seldom opened to others, and never allowed upon any pretence to be disarranged, came his choicest compositions. His disposition was naturally amiable, although, from the tax imposed by close application to study upon his nervous system, he was liable to fits of fretfulness and scepticism that, only occasional and transient as they were, told nevertheless with disturbing effect upon his temper. In the same unfortunate direction was the tendency of a habit grown insidiously upon him, — a habit against the damning control of which (as no one better than the writer of this article knows) he wrestled with an earnestness indescribable, resorting to all the remedial expedients which professional skill or his own experience could suggest, but never entirely delivering himself from its inexorable mastery.
In the true estimate of genius, its achievements only approximate the highest standard of excellence as they are representative, or illustrative, of important truth. They are only great as they are good. If Mr. Foster’s art embodied no higher idea than the vulgar notion of the negro as a man-monkey, — a thing of tricks and antics, — a funny specimen of superior gorilla, — then it might have proved a tolerable catch-penny affair, and commanded an admiration among boys of various growths until its novelty wore off. But the art in his hands teemed with a nobler significance. It dealt, in its simplicity, with universal sympathies, and taught us all to feel with the slaves the lowly joys and sorrows it celebrated.
May the time be far in the future ere lips fail to move to its music, or hearts to respond to its influence, and may we who owe him so much preserve gratefully the memory of the master, Stephen Collins Foster.
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