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Tracing The Origins Of Dying Crapshooters' Blues
Back To English And Irish Folksong In The Eighteenth Century

(Revised edition, 2012 - first appeared in 1989 as a dissertation for Lancaster University)
by Max Haymes

Chapter III 

As has already been stated, there seems to be three strands, by virtue of lyric content, that permeate the two hundred year old-plus history of this song cluster.  All three are recognisable because of their overall varying attitudes to death.  As I have said this song cluster is divided into five groups and three attitudes crop up in all five.  Let us first consider Group 1.

Group 1

Title Date Place of Origin
The Unfortunate Rake c. 1760? Ireland
The Unfortunate Lass c.1760? England
The Unfortunate Lad c.1760? England
Buck’s Elegy c.1790? England
The Tarpaulin Jacket c.1855 England
The Dying Cowboy prob. c.1855 USA
Streets of Laredo prob. c.1855 USA
The Cowboy’s Lament prob. c.1855 USA
The Streets Of Port Arthur prob. 1870-1880 USA
The Dying Hobo c. early 1900s? USA
The Dying Hogger c. early 1920s? USA

In the first place there is a sombre attitude prevalent, with just a glimpse of the irreverent. devil-may-care atmosphere which was to come later.  Belonging to this strand, secular but respectful, is The Unfortunate Lass;  along with its counterparts  of eighteenth century England. (see Appendix XV)  Although the cause of death is plainly venereal disease. [Footnote 5: (See 'Pill of cochia reference above) The phrase ‘the pill of white margery’ occurs in a version of Sailor Cut Down In His Prime Collected by  George E. Gardiner from Mrs. Henry Adams (41) at Basingstoke, Hampshire, in September, 1906. Written in the manuscript in Gardiner’s  ‘own hand’ is the  legend “Margery may stand for marjoram”. But  Reeves notes that “against the  word ‘margery’ in 3.3. there is a pencilled note, also apparently by G,[ardiner]  no doubt at a later date, which reads ‘white mercury’.  This is correct, since mercury was formerly used in the treatment of syphilis.” (42).] there is an air of defiance in the closing line ‘I’m a true-hearted girl but I never done wrong’.  Similarly with the English male version The Unfortunate Lad (see Appendix XVI), where the refrain revolves around the cause of death, as does the opening stanza with its reference to Lock Hospital.  Palmer’s footnote tells us that Lock Hospital is a centre for treatment of venereal disease and that the name is derived “from ‘lock’, female pudendum”. (43)   The same air of defiance briefly shows itself in the opening line of stanza six  where the rake’s phrase ‘play your fife lowly’ is changed to ‘play your pipes merrily’.  The numbers-request motif is present in Lass in the fifth stanza where a certain number of people, six in this case, are requested to perform particular functions at the girl’s funeral.  This stanza forms the nucleus or springboard from which Crapshooter was to ultimately take off.  Although McTell omitted number six (the usual number of pall bearers to carry the coffin) but used a wide range of others from eight to twenty-nine!  Variants of this stanza appear in the male counterpart of Lass and The Unfortunate Rake.  Only a passing reference to the unholy strand of Crapshooter is apparent in Rake, if the ‘girls of the city’ has the same connotations as ‘ladies in the night’ and other euphemisms for prostitutes.  Another connection with McTell’s piece can be seen in The Unfortunate Lass as in the third line in stanza four ‘For me bones they are aching, and me ‘eart it is breaking’, which has a parallel in verse six of Crapshooter

The respectful strand continued into the nineteenth century with The Tarpaulin Jacket.  This contained the numbers-request motif in the refrain and in stanzas three and four.  On this occasion two and six are the numbers mentioned. But amongst four stanzas of sombre, poignancy, there lies one containing the same defiant air, only barely glimpsed at in The Unfortunate Lass.  In his request for brandies and sodas set ‘all out in a row’, the dying man asks for ‘six jolly fellows, to drink to this buffer below’.  Also, interestingly, the reference to ‘…the wings of a little dove’, and the first two lines of the third stanza, have a connection with the final stanza of Rake And Rambling Boy by Gid Tanner which runs in part:

  With some marble stone at my head an’ feet,
  Tell all my friends place the wings of a dove.

As has already been said, this Gid Tanner song will be considered in detail later.  Tanner’s song was, like himself, American which brings us to an important US connection The Dying Cowboy (see Appendix XIII). 

This verse borrows much from The Unfortunate Rake in stanzas three and four and from The Unfortunate Lass and Young Sailor Cut Down In His Prime in stanzas one and four.  However, the original cause of death, venereal disease, is omitted and death by shooting is substituted.  This song contains the first strand of an attitude to death, being very respectful and tinged with regret, except for the flash of irreverence in stanza three which also contains the numbers-request motif.  Cox had noted five versions of The Dying Cowboy collected between 1916-1917 in the state of Missouri.  Referred to as versions ‘A’,’B’,’C’,’D’, and ‘E’.  Only versions ‘B’ and ‘D’ are known as The Dying Cowboy. ‘C’ and ‘E’ are simply The Cowboy and ‘A’ is titled The Wild Cowboy.  ‘A’ and ‘B’ contain variants of the same verse and all five have variations of the same refrain.  But only ‘A’ contains an air of disrespect in the fifth stanza, and even this is off-set by the air of regret in the third one. (see Appendix XVII). [44]  In all five versions death is by shooting and no hint of venereal disease, as the hero’s only vices are gambling and presumably drinking.  But in an extended version, collected by Alan Lomax and entitled The Cowboy’s Lament (see Appendix XVIII), the irreverent and unholy strand is becoming more apparent in stanzas four, seven, eight, and nine. The first two include the numbers-request motif with a number variation in stanza four:

  Let sixteen gamblers come handle my coffin,
  Let sixteen cowboys come sing me a song.

run the first two lines which McTell changed to:

  ‘I want sixteen real good crapshooters,
  Sixteen bootleggers to sing a song.

In the early part of the twentieth century, American author Bob Hughes, wrote The Dying Hobo (see Appendix XIX).  Following on from The Dying Cowboy it has only a trace of irreverence.  After the hobo had ‘sung his last refrain, his partner swiped his shirt and hopped the eastbound train’.  This could well be the source of Dying Pickpocket Blues by Barrelhouse Welch (see Appendix VII) and the half-way mark between The Unfortunate Rake and Dying Crapshooter’s Blues.  Similarities between the two songs include stanza two in Pickpocket and the last two lines of the first stanza of The Dying Hobo.  Also the opening line of the third stanza of Hobo which appears, in part, in Welch’s fourth stanza.  A further link is the incorporation of the theme where the dying man talking to his ‘pardner’ or ‘buddy’ states his last words and requests.  Although the only ‘want’ on the hobo’s list is ‘a drink of whiskey ‘fore I die’ in stanza four, which seems a far cry from the elaborate ‘unholy’ funeral described by Blind Willie McTell.  

Around the same time The Dying Hogger appeared (see Appendix XX).  The only unholy or otherwise anti-establishment requests appear in the three closing lines in stanza two which refers to the traditional ‘war’ that was carried on during a train journey between the engineer (aka ‘hogger’) and the conductor (both white) as to who was ultimately in charge of the train-who was the ‘boss’.  But this unholy strand becomes much more prominent in the songs in Group 2.

Group 2

Title Date Place of Origin
The Flash Lad (The Robber) 1760-1839 England
In Newry Town 1760-1839 Ireland
Newry Town 1760-1839 Ireland
Newlyn Town            1760-1839 Ireland
Wild And Wicked Youth 1760-1839 England
The Newry Highwayman 1760-1839 Ireland
The Sheffield Highwayman post 1840?

Lincolnshire, England

The Jolly Highwayman post 1840? London, England
The Highwayman post 1840? England
Rake And Rambling Boy 1890-1900? USA

In the swaggering song The Flash Lad, as in Crapshooter, there is an air of anti-establishment with its Robin Hood overtones in stanza two and the anti-police theme in stanza three (see Appendix VIII). This would appear to be the direct precursor (via the unholy strand) of The Rakish Young Fellow and also includes the numbers-request motif in the final stanza.  This song was also noted by Cecil Sharp with identical words as The Robber. (45)  Curiously, Sharp made no reference to The Flash Lad .  Unlike some of the songs in Group 1, this one contains no reference to venereal disease, but such ‘a wild and wicked youth’ as described would surely be no stranger to this disease in one form or another.  Indeed, in version 2 of The Wild And Wicked Youth (see Appendix X) there is some elaboration on the singer’s habits which would increase the risk of becoming infected.  Stanza three runs:

  I am a wild and wicked youth,
  I love young women and that’s the truth,
  I love young women, I .love them well,
  I love them more than tongue can tell. (46)

C. Lochlainn’s commentary on The Newry Highwayman (see Appendix XXI) says that the English Folk Song Society Vols. i & ii “have many versions of airs and words”. (47)  Making reference to the entry in More Irish Street Ballads, Patrick O’Shaughnessy reproduces a Lincolnshire version of The Newry Highwayman which is virtually identical to In Newry Town except that stanzas four and seven are omitted and the locations become ‘Sheffield town’ and ‘York castle’.  This version is called The Sheffield Highwayman (The Robber) and O’Shaughnessy says “Funeral stanzas similar to the last two here will be found in The Sailor/Young Girl Cut Down In His/Her Prime and in the American The Streets Of Laredo et al” (48) [see Appendix IX].  Nearly all the folk songs in this book were from the collection of  Percy Grainger including this one which “is almost certainly of Irish origin”,. (49)  Of all the versions so far discussed in this group, the one constant seems to be variants of the second stanza of The Sheffield Highwayman. 

  At seventeen I took a wife,
  I lov’d her dear as I lov’d my life,
  And to maintain her both fine and gay,
  I went a-robbing on the king’s highway.

It is also featured in Gid Tanner’s Rake And Rambling Boy, again in the second stanza.  His title is a modification  of the last line of The Wild And Wicked Youth (version 2-see Appendix X.  As with many blues singers, Gid Tanner’s ‘rural’ pronunciation  is difficult to transcribe and I’m afraid the local place names in the fourth stanza are lost to me!  This hill-billy singer and his group, The Skillet Lickers, were, like many of their white counterparts in the Atlanta area, influenced by black singers and musicians; Rake And Rambling Boy is heavily imbued with the blues. (see Appendix XXII)Part of stanza four is an updating of the fifth one in The Wild And Wicked Youth (version 2); and there are links with two versions of The Highwayman.  The last two lines of version ‘A’ run:

  But sighs and tears will never save
  Nor keep me from an  untimely grave. (50)

These words are echoed in the last two lines of the fifth stanza in Tanner’s song.  In version ‘B’ we have:

  So it’s dig me a grave both large, wide and deep
  And a marble stone at my head and feet
  And in the centre a turtle dove
  To show mankind I died for love. (51)

This has obvious parallels in the Gid Tanner song.  James Reeves’ footnotes include information that version’A’ of The Highwayman is from famous folk song collector, Sabine Baring-Gould and he collected it from “James Townsend at Holne, who learned it from his grandfather, William Ford, who died about seventy in 1887.  Version ‘B’ from Gardiner: Mr. Charles Woodhouse at Micheldever, Hampshire, May 1906.” (52)

Reeves says that the “Ms. gives title I Am a Wild and a Wicked Youth”.(53Rake And Rambling Boy seems to have evolved from the far earlier  The Flash Lad but has discarded the unholy strand  and the numbers-request motif of the latter.  Other connections with Crapshooter are in the description of the song’s hero or anti-hero?  ‘I was raised a rake an’ a ramblin’ boy’, transposes to Jessie as ‘a sinful boy, good-hearted, but had no soul, his heart was hard and cold like ice.’  Also ‘Jessie was a wild reckless gambler’ and apparently a more successful one initially than Tanner’s subject who admits “...I lost my money in a gamblin’ play’.  The cause of death, in the first instance, in both cases is carried out by officers of the law, albeit without chance of a trial in Jessie’s case. 

Gid Tanner’s group were based in Atlanta amidst a strong white country music scene which rubbed shoulders with the equally strong black blues one.  Tony Russell quite rightly says that “Interaction between black and white musicians has been one of the most stimulating forces in American folk music.”, (54) although Russell says this is not so common today because of “‘social reasons’',... in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties they were frequent and fertile” (55)  Former Columbia Record A. &r. man Frank Walker explained to Russell why this was so.  “In those days, in the outskirts of a city like Atlanta, we’ll say, you had your colored section…and you had your white, but they were right close to each other.  They might be swinging round in an arc, the colored people, being the left end of the arc and the white the right, but they would pass each other every dayAnd a little of the spiritualistic singing of the colored people worked over into the white hillbilly, and a little of the white hillbilly worked over into what the colored people did, so that you got a little combination of the two things there...They (the hillbillies) adopted little things that a colored man might be playing on his guitar, but he (the colored man) heard the white fellow across the way...and he adopted a little of that.” . (56)  Russell also notes that a black group of bluesmen sometimes known as ‘Peg Leg Howell And His Gang’ with a line-up of a fiddle and two guitars, was similar to Tanner’s group and they even sounded similar on occasion.  Further to this, Tanner’s excellent blind guitarist, Riley Puckett, declares a the beginning of his version of John Henry, which he called Darkey’s Wail, “I’m gonna play for you this time a little piece which an old southern darky I heard play, comin’ down Decatur Street the other day. ‘cause his good girl done throwed him down”. (57)  In this cross-fertilization process, McTell could have got some inspiration for Crapshooter from Rake And Rambling Boy as he probably heard it in person as “Puckett for some years attended the State Blind School in Macon, Georgia, and while there he may have encountered the black singer Blind Willie McTell, who was a pupil from 1922 to 1925.  It may have even been McTell from whom he learned his interpretation of John Henry.” (58)  Decatur Street, along with Auburn Avenue, as Paul Oliver says: “…were the ‘main stem’ in Atlanta’s Negro sector,” (59)  We now turn to the songs in Group 3.

Group 3

Title Date Place of Origin
St. James Hospital prob. c. 1880 England
Young Fellow Cut Down In His Prime 1880-1899 England
The Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime 1880-1899 England
The Royal Albion 1880-1899 England
The Bad Girl’s Lament 1880-1899 Canada
St. James Hospital 1880-1899 USA

A part version of the English St. James Hospital (see p.10) has already been noted and the lines:

  Mother, dear Mother, come play the French fiddle,
  And play the dead march when they carry me along.

Parallel lyrics in The Rakish Young Fellow (see Ch.2) and The Unfortunate Rake (see Ch.2).  The word ‘disappointed’ was inserted by the singer of the song and so is a case of self-censorship.  In fact as Sutton grew up he noticed that the subject of the song was not “quite nice” so “he gave up singing it.”  Howes states that when the collector, a Miss Bartlett, returned a second time “He also supplied the gist of two other verses”. (60)  The cause of death, venereal disease, (common to all songs in Group 3) is the reason that the singer was  so reticent, especially in front of a lady!  However, this did result in a pretty ‘tame’ version of the song.  It was also the reason, in all probability, why this song cluster is so under-recorded.  Even a version of Young Sailor Cut Down In His Prime that Reeves noted (see Appendix XIV) is fairly coy about the subject.  But the female counterpart The Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime is more explicit and sung in suitably sombre tones by Frankie Armstrong (see Appendix XXIII).  This follows fairly closely the stanzas of The Unfortunate Lass/Lad (see Appendix XV and Appendix XVI) except that the numbers-request motif  is left out; as it is indeed for all four of the English songs in this group.  It re-appears in a version on the other side of the Atlantic, in Canada, called The Bad Girl’s Lament (see Appendix XXIV).  The notes state that this is related to The Cowboy’s Lament and St. James Infirmary Blues; and that “All three spring from the same ancestor: a song known in the British Isles nearly two centuries ago as The Unfortunate Rake, The Irish Rake, or The Unfortunate Lad.” (61)  The notes add that “The Bad Girl’s Lament found a home in Nova Scotia.” .(62)  Further, “It  must also have been known in the United States, for The St. James Infirmary is obviously derived from it rather than from the more familiar Cowboy’s Lament”. (63) 

Apart from the first line I am inclined to give ‘equal billing’ to the latter which not only has two stanzas which include the numbers-request motif, but as already noted, has words which give it a direct link to Infirmary and of course Crapshooter.  This motif only occurs in the last stanza of The Bad Girl’s Lament using the figures four, and by definition, one!  The Canadian song is less explicit as to the cause of death, than its English female counterpart, but does contain a variation of the line from The Unfortunate Lass (see above), also in the third line of the fourth stanza.  This has the ‘secular but respectful’ attitude to death, coupled with regret and a glimpse of belated (?) religious conversion.  The unholy strand creeps into the last verse. 

Crossing the border and traveling south, Cecil Sharp collected one of the earliest forerunners of St. James Infirmary from a resident of Dewey, Virginia (see Appendix XXIV), in June, 1918.  The numbers-request motif crops up in the third stanza using the unusual figure three.  Again, it is not clear as to the cause of death, but this is rectified to some extent by another part-version, also from Virginia, dated 30th. July, 1918; which includes the following different verse:

  Go bear the sad news to my grey-haired mother,
  Go bear the sad news to my sister so dear.
  But there is another more dear than my mother,
  Not one word of my misfortune must hear. (64)

This has a veiled reference in ‘my misfortune’ to a form of venereal disease.  With the advent of African American James ‘Iron Head’ Baker’s St. James Hospital (see Ch. 2 and Appendix XXVI), the unholy strand leaps into the foreground in the last stanza and especially stanza three.  Baker’s first two lines transform the first two in stanza four of The Cowboy’s Lament  to:

  Six young gamblers, papa, to balance my coffin,
  Sixteen young whore gals for to sing me a song, (65)

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the songs featuring the religious strand in Group 4.

Group 4

Title Date Place of Origin
The Dying Californian c.1855 USA
Dying Gambler 1926 (Rev. J.M. Gates recording) USA
The Dying Gambler 1935 (Blind Willie McTell recording) USA

In McTell’s Gambler, paradoxically, the unholy strand presents itself, but as seen from a religious point of view in the final stanza. It is also the only stanza where the dying man takes over the story.  No numbers-request motif  but the general theme of his ‘buddies’, in this case fellow gamblers, gathering round to hear his dying words; continuing the tradition found in The Tarpaulin Jacket, The Dying Hogger, and of course Crapshooter itself.  The final line really says it all from a religious standpoint. 

Finally, in all the songs so far discussed, we can see the culmination of much borrowing and fusing together, resulting in St. James Infirmary and McTell’s Dying Crapshooter’s Blues in Group 5.

Group 5

Title Date Place of Origin
The Rakish Young Fellow 1855-1860 England
St. James Infirmary 1880s (?) USA
St. Joe’s Infirmary 1880s (?) USA
Those Gambler’s Blues c. 1899 (?) USA
Dying Crapshooter’s Blues 1927 USA

Two versions of Those Gamble’s Blues, noted by Sandburg, are in effect a version of the earlier St. James/Joe’s Infirmary (see Appendix III and Appendix IV).  Both versions A and B are obviously one source of the 1928 St. James Infirmary recorded by Louis Armstrong And His Savoy Ballroom Five and subsequent versions in the jazz field. Version A is just as obviously a direct inspiration, in stanzas six and seven, for Crapshooter, including the numbers-request motif, which also crops up in the fourth stanza.  The last two lines of which re-appeared in the McTell piece, suitably modified.  In both versions there is no reference to the cause of death being venereal disease.  Unless the last line of stanza four in B is a vague hint, and also in the last stanza with the vestigial ‘O flowers on the coffin’ line; recalling The Unfortunate Rake. 

The whole concept of how a dying person wanted to be buried in sacrilegious terms as featured here (in A) harks back to the request in the eighteenth century, ‘A flashy funeral let me have’ from The Flash Lad .  The opening line to version B can be traced back, via version A, through The Wild Cowboy  (see Appendix XVII), The Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime (see Appendix XXIII), to The Unfortunate Lad (see Appendix XVI).  It would seem that as far as it is possible to trace, at this point in time, The Unfortunate Rake is the Irish source of the blues in question.  Continued in England via The Unfortunate Lad/Lass and the later Royal Albion family, it picked up the unholy strand with the advent of The Flash Lad, which in itself was inspired by its Irish counterparts: the Newry Town group.  The Flash Lad augmented  with The Rakish Young Fellow crossed the Atlantic where it was ‘cleaned up’ by the cowboy fraternity and appeared as The Streets Of Laredo, while ‘respectable’ versions of St. James Hospital existed alongside it.  But the unholy strand and sacrilegious aspect was to re-appear with the first black recording of the latter title by James ‘Iron Head’ Baker for the Library of Congress.  Together with St. James/Joe’s Infirmary and the more respectful Rake And Rambling Boy by Gid Tanner, the net result was the ‘unholy’ composition by Blind Willie McTell.  Significantly, the first commercial recording (by McTell) of this was for Atlantic Records in the post-war period (see Ch 1, Table A).  Singing, as he was, for fellow working class black citizens (the potential blues-buying public), McTell adopted a ‘jivey’, off-handed, and almost sneering attitude to death in this version of Dying Crapshooter’s Blues. (see Appendix XXVII)


Essay (this page) © Copyright 2012 Max Haymes. All rights reserved.


Further Reading:

'The Dying Crapshooter's Blues' by David Fulmer, Harcourt Trade, 2007   ISBN: 978-0156031388
I wholeheartedly recommend readers to check this book out as it is an excellent read skilfully reproducing the atmosphere portrayed in Willie's superb blues of 1940. 
  -  Max Haymes, March 2013


Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Appendix I
"Dying Crapshooter's Blues" by Blind Willie McTell, 5/11/40, Atlanta, Ga. (L. of C.)
Appendix II
"Dying Crapshooter's Blues" by Blind Willie McTell, 1956, Atlanta, Ga. (Bluesville)
Appendix III
"Those Gambler's Blues" ("The American Songbag", Carl Sandburg)
Appendix IV
"Those Gambler's Blues" ("The American Songbag". ibid.)
Appendix V
"Dying Gambler" by Blind Willie & Kate McTell, 23/4/35. Chicago, Ill.
Appendix VI
"Lay Some Flowers On My Grave" by Blind Willie McTell, 25/4/35, Chicago, Ill.
Appendix VII
"Dying Pickpocket Blues" by Barrel House Welch, -/1/29. Chicago, Ill.
Appendix VIII
"The Flash Lad"
Appendix IX
"In Newry Town" ("Folk-Song Society Vol. 1." Ed. A. Kalisch. c. 1905.)
Appendix X
"The Wild And Wicked Youth" Vsn 2 ("The Constant Lovers" Ed. Frank Purslow. 1972.)
Appendix XI
Appendix XII
"The Tarpaulin Jacket" written by George Whyte-Melville. c. 1855.
Appendix XIII
"The Dying Cowboy" ("The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs" Alan Lomax. 1964.)
Appendix XIV
"The Young Sailor Cut Down In His Prime" ("The Everlasting Circle" J. Lee.)
Appendix XV
"The Unfortunate Lass" sung by Norma Waterson, c. 1977.
Appendix XVI
"The Unfortunate Lad" (Everyman's Book of British Ballads" Ed. Roy Palmer. 1980.)
Appendix XVII
"The Wild Cowboy" (The Dying Cowboy) ("Folk Songs of The South" John Harrington Cox. 1963.)
Appendix XVIII
"The Cowboy's Lament" ("Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. John A. Lomax. 1966.)
Appendix XIX
"The Dying Hobo" written by Bob Hughes c. early 20th century.
Appendix XX
"The Dying Hogger" (Anonymous) "A Treasure of American Ballads".
Appendix XXI
"The Newry Highwayman" ("More Irish Street Ballads" C.O. Lochlainn. 1965)
Appendix XXII
"Rake and Rambling Boy" by Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers.
Appendix XXIII
"The Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime" sung by Frankie Armstrong. 1972.
Appendix XXIV
"The Bad Girl's Lament" ("Folk Songs of Canada" Eds. Edith Fulton Fowke & Richard Johnstone. 1955.)
Appendix XXV
"St. James' Hospital" sung by Laura V. Donald ("English Folk Songs From The Southern Appalachians Vol. II. Cecil Sharp. 1952.)
Appendix XXVI
"St. James' Hospital - "Iron Head's Version" by James (Iron Head) Baker. -/5/34. Sugerland, Texas. 1966.
Appendix XXVII
"Dying Crapshooter's Blues" by Blind Willie McTell, 1949, Atlanta, Ga. (Atlantic).


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