Joplin’s was a curious story. His compositions became more and more intricate, until they were almost jazz Bach.— Music publisher Edward B. Marks, 1934
In 1991, when I was eight years old, I found a simplified version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and relished playing it for most of the year that I was in third grade. My parents had recently divorced. I’d moved from Las Vegas to Reno with my mother, a kindergarten teacher. Before and after school, I played “The Entertainer” on an out-of-tune piano in my mother’s classroom. I played it obsessively, perhaps because it occupied my hands and sounded jolly. I didn’t feel sad when I played it, though I missed my dad fiercely; instead, I felt indefatigable and industrious. The lyrics on my sheet music described a clownish performer doing “snappy patter and jokes” that please “the folks.” I know I imagined a Black man on stage, but I didn’t know about minstrel shows or much else about America’s racist past and present.
My babysitter, who was 13 and also white, loved “The Entertainer” so much that she asked me to teach her how to play it. She’d never taken piano lessons, but she patiently learned the right-hand notes and I accompanied her with the left-hand part. We created a duet and took turns singing the words. I don’t know about her, but I never once thought deeply about what the lyrics evoked: a “mask that grins and lies.” The entertainer I envisioned was a lot like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who looks happy tap-dancing alongside Shirley Temple in her childhood movie series. I presumed that the imagery associated with minstrelsy was normal and innocuous, just as I thought topless showgirls performing in my city’s casinos was. I’m not ashamed of this, but it’s baffling to think that in the 1990s I lived in a place where I was able to spend a year playing “The Entertainer” and learn absolutely nothing about the history of African American music, specifically ragtime, and the life of Scott Joplin.
I still knew nothing about Joplin, the man, when I was 14 and my piano teacher asked me to learn “Maple Leaf Rag.” Or I knew almost nothing. I’d at least learned that Joplin was Black because his photo appeared on my spiral-bound volume of his music. His race didn’t register with me as particularly important, but on the other hand, from somewhere I’d absorbed the idea that ragtime music was simpler and less important than the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. When my teacher, who was a professor of music at the university, handed me the “Maple Leaf,” I presumed it was because he’d disqualified me from playing other, “more serious” pieces. I felt bad about being asked to devote my time to a piece that’s often programmed into player pianos.
That is, until something unexpected happened: I began playing it reasonably well and people loved it. When guests came to my mother’s house, my stepfather urged me to play it. He never asked for Mozart or Scarlatti. Joplin’s rag was more delightful and impressive. It is, after all, a vivacious, happy piece that looks harder to play than it actually is.
Can you play a piece of music well without knowing its background? Is everything you need to know really on the page?
During the years I studied piano, we presumed yes. At weekly lessons, I learned theory, practiced sight-reading, and played pieces from every musical period. Although I was expected to know the dates and features of different musical styles, my teachers rarely if ever contextualized the music they asked me to play. It’s curious to me now that we didn’t talk about historical backdrops and personal tragedies. I know for certain that my teachers had rigorously studied classical music history. Did they think that I didn’t care? Or had they found that students fared better focusing solely on the music as written and their technique in playing it?
I’ve asked these questions because the pieces I played during my formative years are embedded in my soul. They’re part of my identity. I didn’t choose to bring them into my life (a teacher usually did), but ultimately, I did choose them, because I stuck with them. The two pieces that have haunted me the most are ones I started playing at 13 and 14 years old. I felt proud to play the first of these, Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”; I believed it represented me, with its melancholic air and evocation of loneliness and longing. But the other piece, Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” didn’t flow from somewhere inside me. I would have to inhabit it in a different way.
Joplin was born around 1868, possibly in the vicinity of Texarkana, Texas (a town that wasn’t actually founded until 1873). Biographers have been unable to authenticate most of the facts of Joplin’s early life. We know, however, that his mother was freeborn in Kentucky, and his father was born into slavery in North Carolina. The first biography of Joplin, They All Played Ragtime by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, suggests that a seven-year-old Joplin practiced piano in a white household in Texarkana, where his mother cleaned. It’s possible a white person in that household offered him some musical education in exchange for his mother’s work, but no one has been able to confirm that. At any rate, his family enjoyed music at home. Joplin’s mother sang and played the banjo. His father played the violin.
Blesh and Janis believe Joplin left Texarkana in his early teens to be an itinerant saloon and honky-tonk pianist. He likely traveled through Texas, Louisiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, and Missouri before arriving in St. Louis around 1885. Few records exist to tell us where exactly Joplin lived between 1885 and 1901, but he seems to have made his home base Sedalia, Missouri, which was connected by rail to St. Louis.
We don’t know whether Joplin composed “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1897 or 1898, but one legend has it that in 1898 he played it at the Maple Leaf Club—one of Sedalia’s two Black men’s clubs—and dazzled local music publisher John Stark. In Stark’s own version, Joplin came into the office of Stark Music Company with two manuscripts—“Maple Leaf Rag” and “Sunflower Slow Drag”—that had been rejected by other publishers. Stark “quickly discerned their quality,” bought them, and made a five-year contract that obliged Joplin to write only for Stark Music Company. The firm ended up with the rights to all of Joplin’s great compositions.
During its early years, when it emanated from saloons and brothels in Missouri, ragtime piano music was known as “low-class Negro music.” Tom Turpin, who composed the first published rag—“Harlem Rag,” in 1892—was the son of “Honest John” Turpin, owner of the Silver Dollar Saloon, a St. Louis nightclub where ragtime music found a devoted audience. Following in his father’s footsteps, Tom opened Turpin’s Saloon in 1897. Then, in 1900, he opened Rosebud Cafe, which quickly became “the epicenter” of ragtime. Joplin and other ragtime piano legends played their music at Rosebud, and Turpin, as a performer and friend, acted as an ambassador of ragtime as a musical style.
I imagine Turpin was a bold, pioneering businessman, who was eager to take risks: Before following his father into business, the teenage Turpin left St. Louis to prospect for gold in the Big Onion Mine in Searchlight, Nevada. His time in Nevada was a bust, but years later in St. Louis he told stories about the venture, inspiring Joplin to write the “Searchlight Rag.” Moderately paced and capturing the optimism of the Gold Rush era, the “Searchlight” evokes a Western boomtown near the end of 19th century, when a ragtag line of newcomers arrived with hopes of striking it rich.
Although ragtime piano music emerged from and prospered in saloons and brothels, Joplin didn’t attach to immodest or disreputable people. He valued education, respectability, and Art with a capital A. He knew that his music was distinctive, innovative, and highly developed. After composing the “Maple Leaf Rag,” he said to his student Arthur Marshall, “Arthur, the ‘Maple Leaf’ will make me king of ragtime composers.” At the same time, Joplin knew his music wouldn’t be valued as Art until decades after his death. “Boy,” he used to tell other Black songwriters, “when I’m dead twenty-five years, people are going to begin to recognize me.”
In his biography of Joplin, titled King of Ragtime, Edward A. Berlin suggests that Joplin wasn’t just roiled by white disrespect for ragtime. Black opposition to ragtime also caused him considerable grief. “Scott Joplin sought acceptance as an educated, cultured, and respectable individual. In this regard, he could ally himself with others in the Black community who had similar aspirations,” Berlin writes. “But his art, ragtime, was rejected by these very same circles. This was one of the conflicts of his life, a conflict that took on mythic proportions.”
I didn’t know all this when I sat down to learn “Maple Leaf.” I liked its melody and syncopation (or “ragged time”), but I didn’t understand what made it exceptional and “classical.” I understood its structure, a main theme followed by three dynamic strains, and the appeal of its harmonies. I saw perfection in its design—but since each strain struck about the same mood, I didn’t think it could be soul-stirring. It didn’t help that I’d only ever heard the piece played on player pianos in Virginia City, an old mining boomtown near Reno. I expected my rendition, once polished, to sound like what I’d heard on the pianola. Which is to say that I imagined the piece sounding canned. Or just lacking in human warmth.
So I didn’t love “Maple Leaf Rag” at first. It broke into my heart gradually. Playing it felt phenomenally more physical than mental, and I wasn’t used to that. Moreover, I was someone who liked being small, not in size but in presence; I often wished to be invisible. “Maple Leaf Rag” forced me outside of my comfort zone. I couldn’t play it without drawing attention. Consequently, I had to ask myself: Am I going to play this like a painfully self-conscious, introverted 14-year-old? Or can I throw myself into it and show off its vitality?
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“Throwing myself into it” turned out to be difficult because I’d sponged up the idea that white girls can’t “rag” anything. On top of that, I still felt as if I’d been asked to play something less serious, a piece intended for turn-of-the-century parlors and brothels, because people didn’t consider me a serious student or person.
But as I practiced and my fingers learned where to go when, I fell in love with what it felt like to play such an effervescent, propulsive piece. More than any work I’d played, it required physicality and endurance. My teacher, who didn’t often give compliments, praised me for maintaining a tempo Joplin would have approved, but it’s hard to believe I was that consistent: I felt carried away in the music.
The world of classical music had been calling Joplin a classical composer since the 1970s. His position wasn’t explicitly questioned among the adults I knew, but I understood he was unique. When I looked over the very long list of pieces I could play for a local competition, there was only one rag: the “Maple Leaf.” The other “contemporary” pieces were apples to Joplin’s orange. I believe Joplin was the only Black composer on the list.
Simply put, America in the 1990s was tipping me off to much of what I’d later read in books about ragtime and Joplin’s life. White people were failing to see the value of Black art and cede serious space for it. Self-proclaimed promoters of “good music” were attacking popular Black music with the same critiques used to disparage ragtime in the 1890s. The only major difference was that in 1996, racist critiques were private conversations rather than articles published in newspapers, magazines, and academic journals.
In his book Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History, Berlin writes, “From the earliest days there were warnings that ragtime was debasing musical tastes and occupying a position in the hearts of the public that rightfully belonged to ‘the great masters.’” Berlin cites authors of old articles discrediting ragtime, including the author of “Abuses of Music,” who wrote, “There is no element of intellectuality in the enjoyment of ragtime. It savors too much of the primeval conception of music, whose basis was a rhythm that appealed to the physical rather than the mental senses.” The author of “Demoralizing Rag Time Music” offered an even more explicitly racist attack, asserting that ragtime was “symbolic of the primitive morality and perceptible moral limitations of the Negro type.”
At 14, I heard similar ideas about the hip-hop and rap my friends and I loved. White adults, some of whom I respected, considered this music “low art” or not art at all. Of course, some of it really wasn’t good, but some of it was truly great—fresh and alive with complex rhythms and rhyme schemes. As a piano student, I began seeing the line, if blurry, from Joplin’s rags to blues, jazz, hip-hop, and rap, and found it curious how adults who hated “new Black music” claimed to love the old stuff, professing genuine respect for blues, jazz and Motown while calling hip-hop and rap a disease. Ragtime piano music, in all of this, seemed to occupy a quiet, mostly forgotten space. Rather than admiration, I detected people’s boredom with it. Everyone had heard “Maple Leaf Rag,” but never in concert halls; they knew it as background music in amusement parks, antique stores, and ice cream parlors. Americans didn’t devote a lot of thought to Joplin’s immortal rag.
From my perspective, “Maple Leaf” wasn’t simple or undemanding. I told people it was “easy,” or easier than other pieces I’d played, only because the ascending and descending chromatic motives had made it simple to memorize. I never had to set myself to memorizing it; I memorized it organically. And then I’d been able to focus more on small details as well as my performance. Eventually, I even enjoyed playing it for people because I could be exceedingly casual about it and give the impression that I was just tossing off the performance.
I haven’t devoted time to playing piano since 2019, the year I became a mother, but I still play the “Maple Leaf.” These days, the “Maple Leaf” is the piece I turn to when my three-year-old son Dashiell asks me to play for him. It’s the only piece I can still play by heart. However, I feel differently playing it 20 years on. I’m no longer a self-conscious teenager looking out at the world from Reno. I’m a mother living in St. Louis, one of the earliest, most important sites of ragtime music and a diverse metropolis where racism and racial tensions remain palpable in 2023. I can’t not think about the man who wrote “Maple Leaf Rag” and the groundbreaking tradition he defined at the turn of the 20th century.
When I realized Joplin’s house still stands in a formerly African American section of St. Louis that was a red-light district at the turn of the century, I told several people that I wanted to see it. Most responded with some variation of “Oh, there’s not much to see there.” Normally, with this kind of feedback, I would have felt discouraged. But I became even more intrigued. What exactly did people expect to see at the Joplin House?
On a cold, rainy afternoon in December, I finally drove from my apartment in Clayton to the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site in Midtown. I had Dashiell with me, strapped into his car seat holding a bag of Goldfish. We’d listened to Joplin rags all morning, so he was curious about Joplin and excited to see the historic house. However, he scrunched up his nose and looked unhappy with me when I told him we couldn’t go inside; the Joplin House is closed to the public in November, December, and January of each year. I told Dashiell with all the enthusiasm I could muster, “The outside of the house is surely as interesting, if not more interesting, than the inside!”
The Joplin House is a 19th-century brick row house sandwiched between two other brick row houses in a pocket of St. Louis that otherwise retains none of its historical look. Along this stretch of Delmar Boulevard, you’ll also find a grungy touch-free car wash, a neglected self-storage facility, a car repair shop, and a low-end furniture store. Directly across the street from the Joplin House is a grassy empty lot. A large sign pitched in a patch of yellow grass marks it the “Scott Joplin House State Historic Site Special Events Area.” Looking at it, I tried to imagine a “special event.” Perhaps on a beautiful day, if you could experience ragtime piano music live here—and maybe drink—you would forget about the exhaust fumes in the air, the crumbling sidewalks, and the predominance of power lines.
If you’re standing behind the row houses, then the leftmost house, which sits at the corner of Delmar and Beaumont Street, is the new Rosebud Cafe. Opened in 2018, the Rosebud is presently “closed due to repairs” and for the winter, but if you walk around to the front of the building you can see its lovely logo painted on a window. Its closed red rose suggests romance, passion, and new beginnings in a vintage font.
Dashiell patiently endured my poking around. Being three, he wasn’t compelled to roll his eyes; this was just another of mommy’s offbeat excursions. Still, I felt self-conscious. At one point, when I was trying to take pictures, two young Black men walked by us. They looked amused by the sight of us and gave me two thumbs up.
After that, I told Dashiell we ought to go to the address of the original Rosebud Cafe, because it was less than a mile away. He didn’t want to do that, so I began bargaining with him. I offered, “If you come with me to see where the Rosebud used to be, I’ll take you to the National Blues Museum.” (The best part about bargaining with a three-year-old is that you can make whatever it is you’re “giving” something you want anyway.)
After striking this deal, I drove to 2220-2222 Market Street, where I expected to find more 19th-century row houses but found instead a Fairfield by Marriott hotel and a Pear Tree Inn in an expansive, treeless commercial zone. Since there was nothing to see, I told Dashiell we could go directly to the Blues Museum downtown.
Dashiell, of course, loved the Blues Museum, which opened in 2016 to much fanfare. He latched onto a Chuck Berry exhibit, where you can hold down a button and see “the father of rock ‘n’ roll” dance while singing and playing his guitar. After watching Chuck Berry perform, I circled us back to the first room, where Ragtime sheet music is displayed on a wall near a 19th-century pianola. Above the pianola is a Joplin quote: “Play slowly until you catch the SWING, and NEVER PLAY RAGTIME FAST…”
I felt a rush of excitement viewing first or early editions of Joplin’s rags, but my heart sank when I left the room to view other exhibits. Certainly, including Joplin in a blues museum is a thoughtful move, since ragtime gave way to the Blues—or since ragtime began to disintegrate as a distinctive genre when the Blues emerged as a subculture in 1912. I loved discovering a new space where Joplin’s music is celebrated, but obviously people could come into this room, see artifacts from the ragtime era, and leave without really learning anything about the ragtime movement and Joplin’s triumph.
This isn’t a critique of the National Blues Museum, a beautiful and thrilling tribute to blues music, but maybe it’s a comment on how we remember and commemorate things in the United States. We tend not to go deep. We dazzle tourists, and our children, with extraordinary sights and sounds; museums these days are wonderfully interactive. But we gloss over personal and historical contexts. Do we do this to accommodate an intemperate political climate? Or is it that we prefer having an abundance of surface knowledge?
Biographers have characterized Joplin as an intense person who was totally absorbed with his music. He was known to interrupt conversations unrelated to music to share how he intended to deal with different problems in his compositions. His protégé Arthur Marshall described him in a 1971 interview as “one of the most pleasant men you’d ever want to meet,” and “quiet, serious, jolly but not frivolous. He was always thinking of ideas and said very little.”
Joplin was a diligent, determined artist of the highest order, and yet when he received support from the white world of classical music, it tended to come with a proviso or note about how he lacked formal training and didn’t know the works of European masters; at worst, “expert” supporters recognized his talent but diminished his achievements by suggesting that classical composers, including Beethoven, had a prior claim on intelligent syncopation.
As the ragtime era recedes further into history, curators and educators will likely acknowledge Joplin even more briefly. I hope this won’t be the case, not because I want Joplin treated as a hero or mythologized, but because in exploring his life and music we might find ways to speak more honestly with each other about racism in America and the cultural meanings attributed to Black art all the way up to the present moment.
Not surprisingly, Joplin cared a great deal about equal rights and what the future would look like for Black Americans. In 1902, he published “The Strenuous Life,” a ragtime tribute to Theodore Roosevelt, who’d recently invited Booker T. Washington to dine in the White House. Roosevelt had long preached “the doctrine of the strenuous life,” the idea that the highest form of success “comes not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil.” It’s easy to imagine Joplin connecting with Roosevelt’s message and feeling encouraged by the president’s attempt to give a Black man a seat at the table of power. In 1903, Joplin also applied for a copyright on his first ragtime opera, “A Guest of Honor,” which dramatized the Roosevelt-Washington White House dinner date. (The score has been lost.)
The 1890s, when Joplin developed his art, published “Maple Leaf Rag,” and became a major figure in ragtime circles, were a nadir of African American history. Essayist Farah Jasmine Griffin, in her new book In Search of a Beautiful Freedom, sums up the decade:
The 1890s witnessed major setbacks for black Americans. In 1895, Frederick Douglass died and Booker T. Washington delivered his accommodationist Atlanta Exposition address. The Atlanta Exposition gave Washington the opportunity to address Southern white leaders about the South’s race problem. In 1896, the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson made Jim Crow—the doctrine of so-called “separate but equal”—the law of the land. Finally, during this period, the number of lynchings increased dramatically. Over 90 percent of these were the result of white mob violence on Black men.
This was the climate in which Joplin helped create the first uniquely American style of music.
When I moved to St. Louis in 2016, I didn’t like it. I missed the mountains out West and felt out of my element socially. Additionally, the racial divide quickly shattered any illusions I’d had about America entering a post-racial time.
In St. Louis, you can’t delude yourself into thinking America no longer has a race problem (though the problem looks different than it did just ten years ago and keeps evolving at the nexus of class and generation). Since Joplin’s time, mentalities and hearts—and laws—have definitely changed for the better, but this city is still segregated.
Urban geographers have likened the St. Louis metropolitan area to a donut, “empty” in the middle and surrounded by dense, self-contained municipalities or suburbs. The middle isn’t literally empty, but the population of the City of St. Louis is around 293,000, while the population of the entire St. Louis metropolitan area is around 2.8 million. White flight followed by middle-class Black flight disemboweled the city during the 20th century; historically Black neighborhoods, like the one where Joplin lived and ragtime flourished, were razed to make way for highways and new commercial zones. Today, when you look at the demographics of both St. Louis City and the suburban municipalities surrounding it, you see the legacy of racist housing laws and covenants. Until it became illegal in 1968, white realtors and homeowners prevented Black people from moving into predominantly white neighborhoods. The metropolitan area in 2023 remains a mosaic of Black and white patches. And as a result, you see a Black-white divide in local government, schools, cultural institutions, and so on.
At first, I was able to put a lot of this out of my mind. A homebody and introvert, I lived a fairly monastic life in my apartment. The only public place I visited regularly, besides the grocery store, was the library.
But my relationship with St. Louis changed as soon as I became a mother. I could no longer avoid learning my way around the city. Actually, having Dashiell made me want to learn my way around. I wanted to be more familiar with the place where I expected him to grow up. After he turned two, I enrolled him in a preschool across town from where we lived. This forced me to learn roads and pass through unfamiliar areas, and, when I didn’t want to drive all the way back home while he was in school, I began exploring the school’s neighborhood. Eventually, I found a comfortable spot to hang out in a library, where it was quiet and uneventful until one morning last spring when a middle-aged Black man in a Yale baseball cap showed up, sat down at a table near mine, and on his cellphone carried on a conversation about the upcoming fall midterm elections.
From his conversation, I learned this man was a political consultant supporting pro-Trump candidates in various elections across the country. I wasn’t particularly interested in the elections he was discussing, but when he began sounding off about critical race theory (CRT), which he believed to be “an issue voters absolutely care about” nationally, I couldn’t stop listening to him. Speaking to someone who no doubt agreed with him, he passionately voiced his opposition to CRT: “You mean to tell me that we’re going to tell our Black schoolchildren that America is a racist country, and that racism will be a major hurdle to anything they ever want to achieve, and there’s nothing they can do about it? I mean, after hearing that, why would you even try?”
After leaving the library, I couldn’t get his voice out of my head. I’d already been thinking a lot about education and in particular the schools in St. Louis. One thing seemed undeniable: even if teachers never discussed race, no child could come up through the school system here without becoming aware of racial segregation and developing ideas about what it means and how to address it as we go forward into the future. When the political consultant railed against CRT, he seemed to be suggesting that young people would be better off if everyone just denied the existence of privilege, adversity, and obviously racism. That sounded like a distortion that would mostly distract attention away from more meaningful big questions about how young people should be educated and what they should know before graduating from high school.
What should we strive for in an education, musical or otherwise? What’s the value of becoming intimately acquainted with something like a Joplin rag, or any other piece of art? Writers throughout history have argued that art leads us toward self-knowledge, that through art the world shifts and so do we. Along these lines, they’ve posited that art has enormous social value—though not if we think about it in a vacuum.
Dashiell forms opinions about music with very little formal knowledge about it. He’s years away from understanding Joplin’s music as a fusion of folk and high art. He doesn’t know what a typical rag sounds like, nor that Joplin’s rags attained “classical status” and are exceptional realizations of ragtime style.
When I’ve asked him why, in his opinion, the “Maple Leaf” is a crowd favorite, he has told me, “It’s because it’s really bouncy,” and, “our hands go whoosh whoosh whoosh whoosh all over the keys.”
“You’re probably onto something,” I’ve replied, wishing I could play some other rags for him. I know he’d love “Elite Syncopations,” with its ascending and descending chromatic octaves and final strain that resembles the second part of the “Maple Leaf.”
I tell him that when I get back to the piano I’m going to learn “Bethena,” the concert waltz Joplin composed while grieving the death of his second wife, Freddie Alexander. Joplin fell in love with Freddie, married her, and lost her to pneumonia all in 1904. Almost 20 years younger than Joplin, she is said to have helped clarify his ideas about racial pride and African American heritage.
“Bethena,” perhaps more than any other Joplin rag, is enchanting and poignant. Listening to Joshua Rifkin’s performance of it, I feel the weight of Joplin’s life and magnificent achievements. I think about the world he was born into as the son of a former slave. How he managed to get a musical education and then composed music that changed American culture and set the stage for blues and jazz. Musically, I love how “Bethena” beautifully glides along, evoking a ballroom dance, while capturing different moods: it’s romantic, grand, melancholic, and life-affirming. I realize Joplin’s grief upon losing Freddie likely accounts for its mournful quality, but in 2023 the poignancy takes on other dimensions. From my perspective, anyway.
As a mother entering middle age, I’m not as optimistic as I used to be. I worry about what life will be like in the United States when my boy is grown and I am old. I’m distraught about America’s problems—the growing chasm between rich and poor, more people plunging into poverty, gun violence, public health crises, environmental degradation, and a political climate that has fueled racism and other kinds of hate.
Joplin couldn’t have anticipated any of this. But “Bethena” captures what it feels like to look back wistfully. To acknowledge that something—a life, or a way of seeing and experiencing the world—is over. And to know that the future is where all outcomes are possible. Part of grieving is stepping into uncertainty. ¶
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