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Winnipeg Folk Festival born out of political idealism

Posted: 07/11/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 07/11/2013 9:17 AM | Updates

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  • FORTY YEARS OF FOLK FEST — Performers on stage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on July 6, 1983.

    DAVE LANDRY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    FORTY YEARS OF FOLK FEST — Performers on stage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on July 6, 1983.

  • A sea of people came to watch and listen at the Main Stage on a Friday evening, July 14, 1980. 30,000 people were expected to attend the festival that weekend. (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    A sea of people came to watch and listen at the Main Stage on a Friday evening, July 14, 1980. 30,000 people were expected to attend the festival that weekend. (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • A square dancing workshop at the Folk Festival on August 15, 1979. (PAUL DELESKE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    A square dancing workshop at the Folk Festival on August 15, 1979. (PAUL DELESKE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Artis the Spoon Man blows bubbles at the audience from the Main Stage of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Artis, of Seattle, Wash., is one of many performers who travelled to Winnipeg to take part in the 10th annual festival on July 10, 1983. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Artis the Spoon Man blows bubbles at the audience from the Main Stage of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Artis, of Seattle, Wash., is one of many performers who travelled to Winnipeg to take part in the 10th annual festival on July 10, 1983. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Berne Thury from Minneapolis, Minnesota relaxes at the Main Stage on July 9, 1983. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Berne Thury from Minneapolis, Minnesota relaxes at the Main Stage on July 9, 1983. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Al Simmons, in usual sedate attire, gives a child a lift on his horse bike on July 17, 1984. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Al Simmons, in usual sedate attire, gives a child a lift on his horse bike on July 17, 1984. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Heat failed to deter faithful festival-goers on July 10, 1976. (DAVE JOHNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Heat failed to deter faithful festival-goers on July 10, 1976. (DAVE JOHNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • This aerial view shows some of the thousands of folk music fans who flocked to Birds Hill Provincial Park to attend the fourth annual Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1977. More than 24,000 people attended the festival. Organizers said the three-day event had become the largest folk festival in North America. (DAVE BONNER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    This aerial view shows some of the thousands of folk music fans who flocked to Birds Hill Provincial Park to attend the fourth annual Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1977. More than 24,000 people attended the festival. Organizers said the three-day event had become the largest folk festival in North America. (DAVE BONNER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Nicholas Laporte, 4, gives his mother Mette a hand with a foot wash during the Winnipeg Folk Festival on Saturday afternoon, July 9, 1983. (STU PHILLIPS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Nicholas Laporte, 4, gives his mother Mette a hand with a foot wash during the Winnipeg Folk Festival on Saturday afternoon, July 9, 1983. (STU PHILLIPS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • A member of Lights in a Fat City plays a drum at the festival on July 8, 1989. The group was known for playing on instruments from all over the world, alongside custom built devices made from recycled scrap metals and bamboo. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    A member of Lights in a Fat City plays a drum at the festival on July 8, 1989. The group was known for playing on instruments from all over the world, alongside custom built devices made from recycled scrap metals and bamboo. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Festival-goers find refuge from the heat during the Folk Festival on July 9, 1983. (STU PHILLIPS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Festival-goers find refuge from the heat during the Folk Festival on July 9, 1983. (STU PHILLIPS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Aerial view of the Winnipeg Folk Festival grounds on July 11, 1977. (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Aerial view of the Winnipeg Folk Festival grounds on July 11, 1977. (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Folks (left to right) Sandy Anderson and husband Gene, from Frazee, Minnesota, keep dry beneath a canvas during a downpour at the 1984 Winnipeg Folk Festival, while son Mitch sits on the ground at centre. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Folks (left to right) Sandy Anderson and husband Gene, from Frazee, Minnesota, keep dry beneath a canvas during a downpour at the 1984 Winnipeg Folk Festival, while son Mitch sits on the ground at centre. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • A festival goer sits on the Winnipeg Folk Festival grounds on July 14, 1980. (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    A festival goer sits on the Winnipeg Folk Festival grounds on July 14, 1980. (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • The Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1983. (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    The Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1983. (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • David Essig performs at a workshop at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on July 11, 1986. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    David Essig performs at a workshop at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on July 11, 1986. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Scott Johnson, 27, of Oregon and Ruth Dixon, 32, of Minnesota were married on July 12, 1982 in a tent before 300 spectators at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. The couple, assisted in their vows by Kent Militzer and his wife Jan, met at the festival several years before. They've been promised a festival pass on their 50th anniversary.  (JIM WILEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Scott Johnson, 27, of Oregon and Ruth Dixon, 32, of Minnesota were married on July 12, 1982 in a tent before 300 spectators at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. The couple, assisted in their vows by Kent Militzer and his wife Jan, met at the festival several years before. They've been promised a festival pass on their 50th anniversary. (JIM WILEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Joel Bailey, 10, finds he has to fight the forces of gravity to complete his world tour of continents marked on the earth ball at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. John Radcliffe monitors the young traveller's progress. July 12, 1986. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Joel Bailey, 10, finds he has to fight the forces of gravity to complete his world tour of continents marked on the earth ball at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. John Radcliffe monitors the young traveller's progress. July 12, 1986. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • A family attempts to beat the heat on July 12, 1982. (JIM WILEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    A family attempts to beat the heat on July 12, 1982. (JIM WILEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Kevin Muir blows giant bubbles while sister Carolyn watches on July 8, 1988. (DAVE JOHNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Kevin Muir blows giant bubbles while sister Carolyn watches on July 8, 1988. (DAVE JOHNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Eight year old Ariana Histed plays in the crowds with a twirling ribbon at the Folk Festival on July 9, 2004. (RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Eight year old Ariana Histed plays in the crowds with a twirling ribbon at the Folk Festival on July 9, 2004. (RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Festival volunteers Kim Flynn and Sam Owens take a break from the heat during the Winnipeg Folk Festival on a Friday afternoon at Birds Hill Park on July 7, 2005. (RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Festival volunteers Kim Flynn and Sam Owens take a break from the heat during the Winnipeg Folk Festival on a Friday afternoon at Birds Hill Park on July 7, 2005. (RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Twin eight-year-old brothers Ethan and Kieran Wiebe practice their hand stands prior to Beth Orton performing at the Winnipeg Folk Festival at Birds Hill Park on Friday, July 6, 2012. (TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Twin eight-year-old brothers Ethan and Kieran Wiebe practice their hand stands prior to Beth Orton performing at the Winnipeg Folk Festival at Birds Hill Park on Friday, July 6, 2012. (TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Two women dance in the mud at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on a Sunday evening, July 10, 2005. (BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Two women dance in the mud at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on a Sunday evening, July 10, 2005. (BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • Angus Grant of Shooglenifty from Scotland jams with groups Tabache and Wild Mountain Time on a Sunday afternoon at the Winnipeg Folk Festival at Birds Hill Park. July 09, 2000. (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Angus Grant of Shooglenifty from Scotland jams with groups Tabache and Wild Mountain Time on a Sunday afternoon at the Winnipeg Folk Festival at Birds Hill Park. July 09, 2000. (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • The crowd cheers on Feist as she performs on the Main Stage at the 39th annual Winnipeg Folk Festival at Birds Hill Park Wednesday, July 04, 2012. (RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    The crowd cheers on Feist as she performs on the Main Stage at the 39th annual Winnipeg Folk Festival at Birds Hill Park Wednesday, July 04, 2012. (RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • A festival-goer plays with devil sticks as the sun sets on the second last day of the 2012 Winnipeg Folk Festival on Saturday, July 07, 2012. (MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Melissa Tait

    A festival-goer plays with devil sticks as the sun sets on the second last day of the 2012 Winnipeg Folk Festival on Saturday, July 07, 2012. (MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

  • The sun sets on the last day of the Winnipeg Folk Festival on Sunday, July 8, 2012. (JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

    Winnipeg Free Press

    The sun sets on the last day of the Winnipeg Folk Festival on Sunday, July 8, 2012. (JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

A bearded, chain-smoking radical and an ascot-wearing British architect walk into Winnipeg city hall.

It sounds like the setup for a joke, and in 1974 the idea of an urban Prairie oasis, located 800 kilometres from any other major city and with only a few outdoor concerts under its belt, becoming home to one of the most successful folk festivals in North America probably did seem pretty laughable.

It was Winnipeg's centennial year, so Mitch Podolak and Colin Gorrie weren't the only ones pitching wild ideas for the city to celebrate its 100th birthday.

But Podolak, who'd been producing documentaries for CBC radio at the time, was the only dreamer to approach the centennial committee with cash in hand. He'd gotten $16,000 in startup funds from Paul Mills (a.k.a. Curly Boy Stubbs), an award-winning producer of Touch the Earth, CBC's seminal folk and roots radio show.

"I came in and put the money on the table. They gave me a whack of cash (about $100,000) and we were off," Podolak, 65, recalls of how he and Gorrie, a former soldier with a theatre background, talked the powers that be into supporting the Winnipeg Centennial Folksong Festival.

Still, it was a hard sell, this idea to mount a music festival in a provincial park. Winnipeg's folk music scene in the early '70s consisted of just a few small coffee houses, and for politicians of the day, "folk" was synonymous with "rock."

The pair would need something big to bring everyone on board. Something big like Podolak's personality.

"Ruthless and idealistic, abrasive and charismatic, Podolak created the Winnipeg Folk Festival almost as a singular act of bravado. He continues to keep it alive with the same determination," Steve Johnson and Sheldon Oberman wrote of the festival's co-founder in The Folk Festival Book (Turnstone Press, 1984).

In the book, a Winnipeg Free Press reporter also describes him as "the premier entrepreneur of folk music... a transcontinental telephone screamer and cajoler, ego masseur, bully-boy, fiscal conjurer, seat-of-the-pants strategist, romantic and catalyst for an event that has become a North American institution."

As the authors relate in the book, Podolak came by his twin passions of music and social justice honestly.

The son of immigrant garment workers and classical musicians, his parents were also Communists and the Toronto native grew up with Lenin's books scattered around the family home.

Expelled from school in Grade 9, he soon became a fixture at Toronto's Bohemian Embassy Coffee House where he was introduced to folk singers from across the continent -- and the protest movement.

But the life-changing experience came when his older sister took him to see American folk icon Pete Seeger at Massey Hall. "He blew me out of the room," Podolak recalls. "I discovered what I loved at that moment. I'd been playing classical music because I was forced to, but the next day I went out and traded my clarinet for a banjo."

By the time he arrived in Winnipeg in 1968, Podolak was an experienced union organizer and had toured the country speaking out against the war in Vietnam. He came here because the Young Socialists, part of the Trotskyist youth movement, sent him to start a Winnipeg chapter.

All Communist parties in the world used music to recruit people, Podolak says, including the American Communist Party, which he credits for the North American folk music revival, led by Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

"The Winnipeg Folk Festival is entirely, 100 per cent a product of that," says Podolak, who is still (surprise, surprise) outspoken about his political views.

That one-time free weekend of music he and Gorrie convinced Winnipeg to gift its citizen in 1974 was a "seat-of-the pants operation" that drew a reported 22,000 fans over three days. There were just over a dozen volunteers, mostly recruited from among the duo's friends. The budget was overspent.

But as the event drew to a close on Sunday night, according to The Folk Festival Book, co-host and CBC radio personality Peter Gzowski announced to the crowd the festival was too good to be a one-time thing and he was donating his paycheque to keep it alive. "Suddenly people were standing up waving money. The organizers grabbed baskets to collect it all and the issue was settled," the authors write.

As the 40th annual Winnipeg Folk Festival gets underway (it runs to July 14 at Birds Hill Park; see www.winnipegfolkfestival for info), Podolak reflects on "the real power of the organization."

He refers to the 2,500 or so volunteers who transform Birds Hill Park into a temporary city -- in 2011 the event posted a record paid attendance of 59,324 visitors -- every year, handling every festival task from ticket sales to toilet paper.

"If you take the time to educate a volunteer, by the time two years have gone by, that volunteer is worth 5.1 weekend passes," says Podolak who, seizing another opportunity to slip a little politics into the conversation, mentions that he modelled the volunteer system on the Bolshevik Party of 1917.

"It was the only model I knew," he laughs.

The early years were tough. After three money-losing years in a row, the festival was seriously in debt when Jon Singleton, an accounting student, signed on as treasurer in 1978.

"Sometimes suppliers had to wait a year to get paid. The one thing Mitch insisted on was that performers got paid," says Singleton, who retired as Manitoba's provincial auditor in 2006.

"We probably got rained out more often than not in the first five years. At the time, we were really dependent on walk-up sales."

Singleton recalls one rainy festival where Pete Seeger, seeing the desperation of the situation, told organizers they could keep his performance fee.

While the festival tickets were initially sold through an outside "for profit" company, Singleton and his wife, Barbara Hiebert (volunteer manager for 16 years), set up a volunteer-run box office on site so the fest could reap more of the revenue. They even bought sheriff's badges for crew supervisors and dubbed the front-line staff "bandits," as their job was to put wristbands on attendees. They ran the box office for several years.

Now the couple, who have never missed a folk fest, run "base camp" in an RV behind the main stage, caring for their grandchildren while their daughter and son-in-law work as production manager and site manager, respectively.

Jon and Barbara, along with her sister Lorna and their children, Arwen and Bram (and Arwen's husband Taavo Sults), are the recipients of the 2013 Glass Banjo Award, the Winnipeg Folk Festival's highest honour. The award recognizes volunteers, supporters, partners and organizations that have made extraordinary contributions. The Fairmont Winnipeg is also receiving the award this year. It will be presented at 7 p.m. Saturday on the mainstage.

Lorna Hiebert was one of the key organizers of the first festival. She set up the arts and crafts village, was on staff as office manager until 1979 and then volunteered for the next 25 years, including a stint as stage manager.

Hiebert, 61, can recall the days before "tweener" sets -- solo or two-piece acts that play between mainstage performances -- when crews had to build and strike sets in three minutes, often during live CBC broadcasts. And there was no green room, lounge or much of a backstage area at all, really.

"We always had one person who had to go hunt down the artists because we didn't have a place to keep them back there," she says. "We didn't have a toilet nearby. So we had a pail and some blankets."

Podolak hasn't been directly involved with the Winnipeg Folk Festival since 1986, although he still attends.

"After the 12th festival I decided I needed to go and learn a whole bunch more about music. I was doing the same kind of program over and over and I needed it to change. I had used up what I knew."

So he took a year off and started the West End Cultural Centre. In 2007, he and his wife, Ava Kobrinsky, launched Home Routes, a non-profit arts organization that arranges house concert tours for artists, urban folk clubs and travelling folk shows. It even has two new folk festivals in the works: one in Charlottetown, P.E.I, and one in Kingsville, Ont.

Leonard Podolak, 37, who was born three weeks after the second Winnipeg Folk Festival, says the festival has been a "life-defining" event -- particularly the part where he grew up with folk music legends sleeping on the couch and playing fiddle in the family living room.

"It's where we heard stuff you wouldn't hear on mainstream radio -- or any radio," says the banjo player, who will miss this year's festival because he'll be playing the inaugural Red Wing Roots festival in Mount Salon, Va., with his Juno-winning, Grammy-nominated band, the Duhks.

Like his father, he eschews the "star system." (In the early years, Mitch decreed every performer, no matter how well known, would be paid the same fee.

"The real headliner is the festival itself, and the community," Leonard says. "If you talk to your average 22-year-old attendee, there may be an act on the bill they're excited about seeing, but they're probably way more excited about the good times they're going to have with their friends and the music they'll discover."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

  • WEDNESDAY, JULY 10 — About 300 cyclists head north on Hwy. 59 to Birds Hill Provincial Park then to the Festival Campground to set up their camping spots.

    Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press

    WEDNESDAY, JULY 10 — About 300 cyclists head north on Hwy. 59 to Birds Hill Provincial Park then to the Festival Campground to set up their camping spots.

  • Campers in vehicles line up Wednesday morning to get in to the festival camping area.

    Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press

    Campers in vehicles line up Wednesday morning to get in to the festival camping area.

  • Jody Hopper (right) helps his friend Sean Strachan set up his tent in the festival camping.

    Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press

    Jody Hopper (right) helps his friend Sean Strachan set up his tent in the festival camping.

  • Megan Barrymore (right) and wife Mandolyn share a hammock in a shady nook of the festival grounds.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    Megan Barrymore (right) and wife Mandolyn share a hammock in a shady nook of the festival grounds.

  • Premier Greg Selinger points jubilantly up at the top of the Festival Tower shortly after the grand opening of the Winnipeg Folk Festival and its new Festival Village.

    Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press

    Premier Greg Selinger points jubilantly up at the top of the Festival Tower shortly after the grand opening of the Winnipeg Folk Festival and its new Festival Village.

  • Festival-goers make the traditional run to the main stage, tarps in hand, to stake out a spot.

    Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press

    Festival-goers make the traditional run to the main stage, tarps in hand, to stake out a spot.

  • Paul Tackaberry (right) fans out his tarp.

    Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press

    Paul Tackaberry (right) fans out his tarp.

  • Space near the main stage fills up fast as everyone tries to claim a prime spot.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    Space near the main stage fills up fast as everyone tries to claim a prime spot.

  • Scott Buxton demonstrates circular breathing on one of his didgeridoos.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    Scott Buxton demonstrates circular breathing on one of his didgeridoos.

  • People wait patiently on near the main stage for locals Oh My Darling to open Wednesday night's performances.

    People wait patiently on near the main stage for locals Oh My Darling to open Wednesday night's performances.

  • Ojibway Métis elder Mae Louise Campbell offered the Winnipeg Folk Festival's opening blessing on the Main Stage Wednesday night.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    Ojibway Métis elder Mae Louise Campbell offered the Winnipeg Folk Festival's opening blessing on the Main Stage Wednesday night.

  • Local Winnipeg group Oh My Darling starts the Wednesday night performances.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    Local Winnipeg group Oh My Darling starts the Wednesday night performances.

  • A man snaps a photo of Oh My Darling.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    A man snaps a photo of Oh My Darling.

  • Oh My Darling.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    Oh My Darling.

  • Oh My Darling.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    Oh My Darling.

  • The crowd gets moving to the Avett Brothers.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    The crowd gets moving to the Avett Brothers.

  • The Avett Brothers get people up out of their seats.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    The Avett Brothers get people up out of their seats.

  • The Avett Brothers.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    The Avett Brothers.

  • Sisters Avery MacKenzie, 6, and Cadence, 3, try to catch bubbles made by Rich Hamon.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    Sisters Avery MacKenzie, 6, and Cadence, 3, try to catch bubbles made by Rich Hamon.

  • Festival-goers take a break at the conclusion of the Avett Brothers' set on the main stage.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    Festival-goers take a break at the conclusion of the Avett Brothers' set on the main stage.

  • Festival-goers groove to the Avett Brothers.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    Festival-goers groove to the Avett Brothers.

  • Festival attendees enjoy the sunset and prairie grass on the first day of the 2013 Winnipeg Folk Fest.

    Melissa Tait / Winnipeg Free Press

    Festival attendees enjoy the sunset and prairie grass on the first day of the 2013 Winnipeg Folk Fest.

  • City and Colour headlines the main stage Wednesday night.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    City and Colour headlines the main stage Wednesday night.

  • Fans watch City and Colour attentively.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    Fans watch City and Colour attentively.

  • Dallas Green of City and Colour closes out the main stage performances Wednesday night.

    JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

    Dallas Green of City and Colour closes out the main stage performances Wednesday night.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 11, 2013 C1

History

Updated on Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 6:38 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline, adds slideshow

9:17 AM: adds slideshow

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