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Robert Johnson: 'Me and The Devil'

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posted on Mar, 13 2011 @ 05:07 PM
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Hey, this is aimed primarily at guitarists but would seeing as its a bit paranormal/religious, I welcome anyone to provide their input. I'd like to see what everyone thinks of the myth that Robert Johnson sold his soul at the crossroads near the Dockery Plantation in exchange for maximum guitar skills (no other way of wording it really, can't get any better... Tommy Emmanuel comes close, but doesn't quite hit it like Johnson can!). I'm going to give a bit of a biography, so I hope its an interesting read at least.



This early biography is basically a summed down version of his wikipedia page, it's necessary but I'm summing it up so I can get straight to the point. There is very little known about Johnson's life, which adds to the mystery of the crossroads myth and has perhaps served to help validate it.

Anyway, basically the story goes that Robert Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi to Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson. Julia's husband, Robert's step-father, Charles Dodds was forced to leave town due to pressure from a lynch mob. Robert's mother left Hazlehurst with him but after two years, sent him to live with Dodds, who in turn sent him back to live with his mother in Mississippi 1919.

Whilst he was at school between 1924 and 1927, his name was registered as Robert Spencer (taking his mother's new surname) on a 1920 census. He seems to have been fairly well educated for a child of his background and one of his friends Willie Coffee, would later recall that Robert was pretty good at the harmonica and 'jew' harp (hey, I didn't name it..).

When he was married to 16 year old Virginia Travis in 1929, Robert signed his name as 'Robert Johnson', reverting to the surname of his original father. She died shortly after childbirth and some of her surviving relatives later claimed this was divine punishment for Robert's singing of secular songs, known as 'selling your soul to the devil'. In any case, the incident inspired Robert to leave the husband/farmer lifestyle behind and begin a career as a full-time blues troubadour.

Around this time, Son House moved into town (Robinsonville, where Johnson lived). He describes Johnson at this period as a 'little boy' who was an abysmal guitarist. Seriously, Johnson would insist he be allowed to play in public and he was just awful, 'embarrassingly bad'. Johnson left Robinsonville and set off on the road, perhaps in search of his birth father, and perfected the styles of Son House and others from the Zimmerman brothers (Ike Zimmerman was himself, rumoured to have learned supernaturally by practicing in graveyards at midnight).

Here's where it gets interesting. I'm not sure of the exact time scale, but it must be around a year or so. Remember, before Johnson set off from Robinsonville, he would get up on stage and everyone would literally moan 'Oh no... not Robert Johnson.. no man, don't, please!' - he was rubbish at guitar. But when he came back, 'he had seemed to have acquired a miraculous guitar technique'. Robert Johnson was seriously good this time, he blew even Son House, a veteran, out the water.



When Johnson next appeared in Robinsonville, he had seemed to have acquired a miraculous guitar technique.[16] House was interviewed at a time when the legend of Johnson's pact with the Devil was well known among blues researchers. He was asked whether he attributed Johnson's technique to this pact, and his equivocal answers have been taken as confirmation.[5]


We will touch upon the Faustian devil myth after the rest of Johnson's story. In any case, he was rubbish on guitar even after playing for quite some time and came back after around a year and was a virtuoso - this does not happen under natural circumstances. Most of his peers beleive that Robert sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads and he also claimed that this was true. This is clear in songs like 'Cross Road Blues', 'Hellhound on My Trail' and 'Preachin' Blues' where he really does play and sings like a man possessed.



From another website:


He was already bitter toward his creator, blaming God for the death of his beloved wife and unborn child. Despondent and irrational, he made a momentous decision. At the stroke of midnight, he walked down to the windswept crossroads at the junction of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, MS. Reciting an ancient incantation, he called upon Satan himself to rise from the fires of Hell. In exchange for Johnson's immortal soul, the devil tuned his guitar, thereby giving him the abilities which he so desired. From then on, the young bluesman played his instrument with an unearthly style, his fingers dancing over the strings. His voice moaned and wailed, expressing the deepest sorrows of a condemned sinner.


From Wikipedia:



According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Robert Johnson was branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician. He was "instructed" to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. The "Devil" played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This was in effect, a deal with the Devil mirroring the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, Robert Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous.


He remarried soon after, but after his wife fell ill he abandoned her for a career playing blues on the road. Now this was extremely low of him, but it speaks volumes about his personality at this stage - maybe he didn't want to watch another wife die. Or perhaps he truly had sold his soul. He spent the next years of his life on the road, playing in public, seducing many women (yes, even married women) and getting wasted. He's one of the first rock stars in that respect. He learned to transpose piano licks and riffs onto guitar with relative ease and incorporated this into his guitar playing.

Recording sessions:


Around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi, who ran a general store and doubled as a talent scout. Speir put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who offered to record the young musician in San Antonio, Texas. At the recording session, held November 23, 1936 in room 414 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio[27][28][29] which Brunswick Records had set up as a temporary studio, Johnson reportedly performed facing the wall. This has been cited as evidence he was a shy man and reserved performer, a conclusion played up in the inaccurate liner notes of the 1961 album King of the Delta Blues Singers. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played sixteen selections, and recorded alternate takes for most of these.




In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session in a makeshift studio at the Brunswick Record Building, 508 Park Avenue.[34] Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. Because Johnson did two takes of most songs during these sessions, and recordings of those takes survived, more opportunity exists to compare different performances of a single song by Johnson than for any other blues performer of his time and place.[35]





Robert Johnson died soon after these recording sessions within, once again, mysterious circumstances. He was aged 27, again - perhaps the first to join the 27 club.



Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles (24 km) from Greenwood. Differing accounts and theories attempt to shed light on the events preceding his death. A story often told is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance, the wife of the juke joint owner, according to rumor, unaware that the bottle of whiskey she gave to Johnson had been poisoned by her husband. In another version, she was a married woman unrelated to the juke joint owner. Johnson was allegedly offered an open bottle of whiskey that was laced with strychnine. Fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson allegedly advised him never to drink from an offered bottle that had already been opened. According to Williamson, Johnson replied, "Don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand." Soon after, he was offered another open bottle of whiskey, also laced with strychnine, and accepted it. Johnson is reported to have begun feeling ill the evening after drinking from the bottle and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days, his condition steadily worsened and witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain—symptoms which are consistent with strychnine poisoning.

In his book Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, Tom Graves uses expert testimony from toxicologists to dispute the notion that Johnson died of strychnine poisoning. He states that strychnine has such a distinctive odor and taste that it cannot be disguised, even in strong liquor. However, according to the CDC, strychnine is bitter but odorless.[39] He also claims that a significant amount of strychnine would have to be consumed in one sitting to be fatal, and that death from the poison would occur within hours, not days.


Maybe the devil had come to claim what was his. Or his hellhound had finally got to Robert and taken all his earthly possessions, as well as his soul, away.

I was just wondering what everyone else's take on Johnson is? I will provide some more links below if you're interested in reading, but there really wasn't much written about his life that can be taken as fact. There's only two proven photograph of Robert, and one other possible one of him in his youth. I personally do sometimes think that it may be possible; if a devil exists, I'm sure one could negotiate with him! Or maybe I just like the romantic appeal of the story, but you read a lot about magic and witchcraft up here, so I'm sure many will go along with the Johnson myth.

Possible Photo (Unproven):



Though he wasn't that well known in his time, Clapton has emphasised what a huge impact Johnson's music had on the blues and many other top musicians have followed suit, and he truly has become one of the most influential musicians of all time - through a mere 26 recorded songs.


Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin referred to him on NPR's Fresh Air (recorded in 2004) as “Robert Johnson, to whom we all owed our existence, in some way.”

To Eric Clapton, founder and member of many legendary groups, Johnson was "the most important blues musician who ever lived."[62] He recorded enough of his songs to make Me and Mr. Johnson, a blues-rock album released in 2004 as a tribute to the legendary bluesman (also made into the film Sessions for Robert J).

Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones introduced bandmate Keith Richards to his first Robert Johnson album. The blues master's recordings would have as much impact on him as on Mick Jagger. The group would perform his "Walkin' Blues" at the Rock and Roll Circus in 1968. They arranged their own version of "Love in Vain" for their album Let It Bleed; recording "Stop Breakin' Down Blues" for Exile on Main Street.




He's probably my personal favourite guitarist, and I reccomend that anyone aspiring to master the instrument tries to learn some of his songs by ear, the way Robert would've like it
. I love all his songs, but here's just a few of them to give you a taster - these songs were recorded in a tiny amount of time yet perfectly executed on the recordings! Does he sound like a man battling for his soul? He really does to me, he embodies the blues like no one else - hinging and songwriting are brilliant but just listen to that guitarwork!:







Cover versions:

- massive tune.

More Reading:
Wikipedia
Crossroads (Wiki)
crossroads.stormloader.com...
Article
edit on 13-3-2011 by arollingstone because: (no reason given)




posted on Mar, 13 2011 @ 05:34 PM
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Niccolo Paganini was also said to have sold his soul to the devil. He was a Virtuoso violinist from Genoa Italy, died in the late 1800's, funny, I just sent in an article to get processed for a magazine my friends and I have, it's about Led Zeppelin, and I talk about the accusations against them also, and I included a bit about paganini and Robert Johnson.



posted on Mar, 13 2011 @ 05:39 PM
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Here's a video of Alexander Markov playing Paganini's 24th Caprice



I say The dogma goes hand in hand with these two musicians, well Paganini and Johnson, can't say much about Markov.



posted on Mar, 13 2011 @ 05:44 PM
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Very nice and well presented thread. As a guitarist myself, I am a fan of Robert Johnson. However, I also don't really believe in the concept most people have of the devil.

If he really did "summons up" some type of extra normal influence, it was probably nothing more than his inner mind making himself more confident, thus improving his ability to play.

With that said though, I do have something else to add. I have mentioned this in a couple other threads already, but I have within the last 14 months or so started having seizures. The seizures originate from the left side of my brain. After I have had a seizure, depending on the severity, my right brain takes over. I am normally very left brained. But, after having a seizure, and having my right brain become dominant for a time, I find I am way more creative, and my ability to play my guitars is greatly increased.

This could well be what happened to him. Temporal lobe seizures are often associated with religious/paranormal personal events.

Just a thought....



posted on Mar, 13 2011 @ 05:46 PM
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Originally posted by Majestic Lumen
Niccolo Paganini was also said to have sold his soul to the devil. He was a Virtuoso violinist from Genoa Italy, died in the late 1800's, funny, I just sent in an article to get processed for a magazine my friends and I have, it's about Led Zeppelin, and I talk about the accusations against them also, and I included a bit about paganini and Robert Johnson.


I've never heard the Paganini myth, good call - he was insane on the violin! Edit: Or so I assume from his ability to write the 5th and 24th caprices
. Yeah, the Led Zeppelin one is true Jimmy Page was really heavily into his occult influence (especially Crowley), you can hear and see it all over their work. The other guys weren't neccesarily into it as he was, but he may have put some spells on the band! Listen to the lyrics in stairway to heaven, few occult images there and Plant described the process of writing the lyrics in a manner similar to automatic writing. The lyrics of that song played backwards are a hell of a coincidence (excuse the pun).

Page also had a mansion that used to belong to Aleister Crowley himself! Apparently a lot of his visitors saw some crazy stuff in there. Actually, I wouldn't mind doing a piece on Page's occult interests and influence on Led Zep! Cheers for bringing them up. I'll put some more original writing into it, though I got the impression Page didn't necessarily sell his soul he may have been into his magic (perhaps just white magic?). Maybe this soul-selling/ business works though
.

The argument I have against it though is that it doesn't make any rational sense whatsoever. If you are confronted by the devil and are in the position to sell your soul - then clearly the devil exists. If the devil exists then heaven and hell probably also exist, so if you know that all of these exist, why would you willingly exchange a short life of luxury here for an eternity of damnation? Talk about sacrificing lack of long-term sustainability for short-term profit!

Anyway the story can even be traced back to the story of Faust:


Though a highly successful scholar, he is dissatisfied, and makes a deal with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures

edit on 13-3-2011 by arollingstone because: (no reason given)



posted on Mar, 13 2011 @ 05:55 PM
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reply to post by webpirate
 


Nice to hear a more scientific perspective on things. This is another possibility, I mean he could have just used the myth to hype himself up after doing nothing but practice every single day for a while. He also learnt from Ike Zimmerman, who had great technique - I also remember reading that apparently he used to teach Johnson at graveyards
. A year learning from him might do the trick if Johnson had a natural talent for the instrument. Or maybe he learned from some spooky ghosts! Still seems far fetched! Your explanation sounds more credible to be honest. I like the devil myth though
...even if I don't truly believe it haha.

I hope your condition isn't too serious, do you have seizures often? I like that you're able to at least see the positive in being much more creatively inclined as a result. Not to demean it or anything, its a nice attitude - a true musician!
edit on 13-3-2011 by arollingstone because: (no reason given)


edit on 13-3-2011 by arollingstone because: (no reason given)



posted on Mar, 13 2011 @ 06:27 PM
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reply to post by arollingstone
 


Hehe yeah, the story I heard was, Stairway was supposed to be an instrumental, and Robert Plant heard the song and knew it was gonna be big so he started jotting down lyrics . But personally I feel they were influenced by a large number of different sources, one being Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings, like on Stairway, the part where he says "there's a lady who's sure, all that glitters is gold.." that is clearly Tolkien:

"All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king."

And in ramble on, he has a line that says, "In the darkest depths of mordor, I met a girl so fair,but Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her"

I have also read, that as far as Paganini and Johnson, it was pure jealousy, envy or a manner of tarnishing their image, since they were known to have flings with married women lol So naturally, they would say "the reason they are so good is because they made a pact with the devil!" haha i guess to keep their women from being seduced lol



posted on Mar, 13 2011 @ 06:38 PM
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reply to post by arollingstone
 





Listen to the lyrics in stairway to heaven, few occult images there and Plant described the process of writing the lyrics in a manner similar to automatic writing. The lyrics of that song played backwards are a hell of a coincidence


he also said he wrote the majority of the lyrics in like 5 mins. as a musician i know that great songs come easy at times i have some wriitin in a few mins some in years, he also wrote it in an abandoned castle to in my memory serves me right.
edit on 13-3-2011 by gmac10001 because: spelling



posted on Mar, 14 2011 @ 01:46 AM
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i was under the impression that Johnson's ability didnt appear overnight, but while he secluded himself and practiced nonstop for a time...people were just surprised when he showed back up after a respite and was great...also, i dont believe he was considered all that remarkable by his peers back then...he was good, but there were lots of great bluesmen...Skip James, Leroy Carr, Blind Lemon, etc...people act like Robert Johnson invented the damn blues just because he was Eric Clapton's hero, and it simply isnt the case...the devil myth just gave him good publicity so he went along with it...



posted on Mar, 14 2011 @ 02:17 AM
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reply to post by Majestic Lumen
 


Haha yeah I quite like the Tolkien references in Led Zep, it isn't really corny like the Iron Maiden fantasy ideas. I think a lot of bands that were inspired by Led Zep were almost caricatures of an inimitable band! Funny that people would have said it to get back at Johnson, didn't really work did it? I don't think he had a problem with the devil stories haha, probably could've used it to pull!



posted on Mar, 14 2011 @ 02:29 AM
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Originally posted by HenryPatrick
i was under the impression that Johnson's ability didnt appear overnight, but while he secluded himself and practiced nonstop for a time...people were just surprised when he showed back up after a respite and was great...also, i dont believe he was considered all that remarkable by his peers back then...he was good, but there were lots of great bluesmen...Skip James, Leroy Carr, Blind Lemon, etc...people act like Robert Johnson invented the damn blues just because he was Eric Clapton's hero, and it simply isnt the case...the devil myth just gave him good publicity so he went along with it...


Yeah that was the impression I had, that he went off for a year and returned after intense practice/learning. But its still a crazy achievement to have gotten that good that quick. I mean I've been playing for about 13 years and I'm only just starting be able to play some of his songs, not amazingly well but hey could fool a non-musician! Still can't quite nail that Johnson groove. He knew so many devices and licks too, its mad! Imagine if he was around for 20 years just how much great music he'd have written.

I agree, there are plenty of amazing blues musicians but Johnson really encapsulates the delta blues for me, he is the cream of the crop in my opinion. Though, I do think that some like Tommy Emmanuel are better technically or perhaps demonstrate more range, I'm talking about acoustic blues. It's his approach to playing licks and solos, the way he hits every single note is so precise and so intricate - he's really sensitive to tone. I mean, the guys playing bass, chords and melodies all at the same time and he weaves each section together so well. Really innovative stuff transposing piano boogie woogie baslines to guitar. Every song has its own feel, hell every note has its own feel - the guy was a master musician!

Having said that, I do also love a good bit of Muddy, Buddy, BB and the rest of the gang
. Skip James was an incredibly talented guy btw yeah, very good call! Blind Lemon is good too, has some great songs. There's plenty out there, as you say, I just like Johnson the most out of his peers.
edit on 14-3-2011 by arollingstone because: (no reason given)



posted on Mar, 14 2011 @ 03:53 AM
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reply to post by arollingstone
 


They are mostly just partial seizures. Those that just usually involve staring off into space, or random automatism's. Mine occur frequently enough where I haven't been able to drive since they were officially diagnosed. They are usually spread apart though. A couple of week usually between them. It's when I have several close together or a generalized one when I get the whole right brain taking over. I literally have a folder on my computer that is filled with writing ideas. Unfortunately, or fortunately...lol, my meds allow my left brain to take over after a day or so.

I was totally serious though about my natural ability to play increasing after they happen. I started learning how to play the piano at a very young age...4, but everything I ever learned was by using music. The same happened with guitar. Either music or tablature. But when my right side kicks in the natural ability I have in hearing tones, becomes combined with an unnatural talent of mine of learning something just by hearing it, along with an ability to improvise. To go beyond the music.

As you put in the original post, Johnson was "rubbish." I can play. I own multiple guitars, but if I try to get away from the tabs or music, I'm also rubbish. No improvisation. I can't think beyond the notes. If I were in 1920's and 30's rural South, in areas way beyond our modern medicine, and prone to deep religious beliefs and found myself struck down on the road...ie a seizure, then awoke to find my ability to play guitar improved almost overnight, it might be easy to say I made a deal with the devil. Especially if it was suggested by others also.

I know from personal experience when I can shake off my very rigid, black and white, by the book left brain, my right side opens me up to a whole new world of discovery. Combine that with a lack of diagnoses, partial seizures in the temporal lobes weren't officially recognized until the 1980's and chronic alcohol use or abuse which lowers the seizure threshold and my life as an artist could well change overnight. Why not? I mean it worked for Lewis Carroll.



posted on Mar, 14 2011 @ 03:41 PM
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reply to post by webpirate
 


Well glad to see you're being optimistic about it, so it isn't totally rehabilitating when it occurs is it? Your rationalisation makes sense, especially since you can relate. During a more superstitious time, as you say, it may have been much easier to get away with bold claims such as 'I sold my soul for my mad skills' when in actuality they were the result of another reality haha. Maybe he smoked a lot of ganja on the road
.

To be honest, the art of effective improvisation is just the art of recycling licks you already know imo.. I could never improvise until I started really building up my bank of licks, its much easier when you have a basis to mess around with. I like to come up with a motif and mess it up, rearrange it as I'm playing and just follow my own lead when I know I can take something I've played into a nice direction. Having said that, you do have to be in a certain state of mind to get that nailed - sometimes I can't.. If im trying to write a new chord progression, I just try random combinations until it clicks and I think 'ah! thats a keeper, those two chords in a row really work' and build up from there. What's your process? I've got a friend whose insanely creative, he's written about 10 000 riffs and licks, but he doesn't really seem to be able to get them together in singular songs. What a drag!

Edit: Btw, I can read manuscript (from playing piano) but I don't like to play like that, never been good at playing from sheet music on guitar - since learning some Johnson I don't like tabs either. I find it much more rewarding to do it by ear and really figure it out! Its amazing how you learn part, get all chuffed, just to realise that he hits a few of them notes just a bit different lol.
edit on 14-3-2011 by arollingstone because: (no reason given)



posted on Mar, 15 2011 @ 02:12 AM
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Oops.. I meant dehabilitating! Must not have been concentrating on that line lol



posted on Mar, 15 2011 @ 12:02 PM
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Originally posted by arollingstone
Oops.. I meant dehabilitating! Must not have been concentrating on that line lol


It's debilitating because it has prevented me from driving for well over a year now.
It's rehabilitating because it opens up a whole new world for me when it happens!


The big think it did for Robert Johnson, was allow him to create the riffs that the majority or rock and roll is based on. He could barely play what already existed before. After his pact he invented new stuff that has carried on ever since.



posted on May, 16 2011 @ 11:14 AM
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reply to post by Majestic Lumen
 


I always thought it was "Gollum and the evil wargs crept up and slipped away with her." Makes more sense since the evil one wasn't really in the Hobbit.



posted on May, 16 2011 @ 02:34 PM
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posted on May, 16 2011 @ 10:18 PM
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Interesting thread. I think these guys added the devil comments probably for the shock value, and because it often sold more records! I know Page did. People just eat up all that kind of stuff, with all the mystery and thinking they had been given some kind of special powers and whatnot lol.

As for Led Zepp, well they have plenty of these kind of comments in their music - backward and forward lol. One that comes to mind is in 'The Ocean' where Percy sings the lines: Got no time to pack my bag, my foots outside the door. I got a date, I can't be late, for the hell hounds have us four.



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