Can you tie them in a knot?

Occasionally, I think of incredibly weird things that just stick in my mind.

Example: For the last week, a children’s rhyme has been stuck in my head. Around here, it’s the song that the Ice Cream man plays while driving slow around the neighborhood.

The lyrics, though, are what interest me. I’ve been singing this song since I was little, and I never once stopped to think what the words really meant.

Do your ears hang low,
Do they wobble to and fro,
Can you tie ‘em in a knot, can you tie ‘em in a bow,
Do you throw them o’er your shoulder like a continental soldier,
Do your ears hang low?

And the part that bothers me most about this song isn’t that there is a question of having ears long enough to throw over one’s shoulder, it’s that I had no clue as to what a continental soldier was, or if one even existed.

Thanks to the power of the internet, though, I can look it up. There really was a such thing as a Continental Soldier.

Without looking up anything, my first thought was that a Continental soldier would be someone from Europe. After all, it’s an old song, and Europe was referred to by the British as the Continent. So, it would be reasonable to think that soldiers there would be referred to as Continental soldiers.

However, I was wrong, as usual. A Continental soldier was an American soldier, as the army was created by the Continental Congress.

So, now that I know what a Continental soldier is, I can now worry about other, more worrying things. Like, why do they have such long ears? What happened to them? And why do they throw them over their shoulders.

I have questions, and for once, the internet isn’t answering.

About Lisa Baker

Unsympathetic is the sentiments of Lisa Baker, a thirty-something working girl from the suburbs of California's capitol city. All opinions belong solely to her. If you disagree, get your own blog.

47 thoughts on “Can you tie them in a knot?

  1. I’m afraid I can’t help with the answer, but I found it interesting and thought I should make a note, that over here in the UK we sing regimental soldier, not continental. I presume for the reason you just stated, that continental soldiers are American, but I don’t know!

  2. I believe that you are perhaps mis-interpreting the lyrics. It is not that you can throw your ears over your shoulder as a Continental Soldier does – but that you can throw your ears over your shoulder as you would throw a continental shoulder over your shoulder.

  3. Jordan: It’s quite possible that I’m misinterpreting the lyrics, but it just seems to be that the “speaker” of the song is asking if you can throw your ears over your shoulder, like a soldier can.

    Which is a silly question. I can’t throw my ears anywhere, let alone over my shoulders.

  4. Ah, sarcasm. The words that run this site.

    Ahem. No, actually, I missed the sarcasm the first time around. Which is why my comment seems sarcastic in response. But I get it now, no worries.

    However, I do still wonder about the long ears thing. Perhaps I’ll devote my masters thesis on trying to figure out what the song is really trying to teach children.

    Like that won’t be a waste of time.

  5. What if the ears being referred to in the song arent really ears? Perhaps they are the ends of a large scarf tied around your neck. That would explain how you could tie them in the shape of a knot or a bow.

  6. Pravin: true, but then why would you ask “do your ears hang low” if ear is a stand in for scarf.

    I mean, I wear scarves, I knit scarves, and never in my life have I run across a scarf that didn’t “hang low.” Which leads me to belive that it’s obvious that scarves hang low, and would make the song siller than it is, by asking a question everyone knows.

    “Do your scarves hang low?” “Yes.”

    Maybe it’s just me, but I keep thinking of the African tribes that stretch out their ears with weights for beauty. But, I have no idea why a Continental soldier would do that.

  7. Umm … well, Africa’s a fair sized continent. And during the Roman empire, there was an entire african regiment. That would explain the continental soldier and the british variation.

    Its starting to make less sense now :|

  8. I just came across this while searching to discover what exactly a ‘continental soldier’ was myself after singing the adult version of that song, LOL, and I just thought I’d mention that my take on it is that the ears (or whatever ;) ) are thrown over the shoulder like a soldier’s bayonet is held over the shoulder. Still doesn’t explain the whole long, floppy ear thing, except that I’ve seen the song done to animations with donkeys and suchlike, which does make me curious as to the origins of the song, whether it came from a story or something, because it is rather a silly one!

  9. After hearing the remix of this song into a rap song, i became curious. In class, (AP U.S. history, sophmore/sopphmore/sopphomore) my well-informed teacher randomly sung this song while talking about Continental / British fighting. Yes, I live in the U.S.

    Okay… I do not know what this will clarify… but here is my understanding. While I am in 10th grade… I am still very inteligent, thank you very much.

    Continental does, in fact, mean American soldier in the time of the American Revolution. Also, this was a song, much like “Yankee Doodle,” to insult the American soldiers because in this time period, a lot of fighting was actually verbal abuse (keep in mind “a lot” does not mean most). The term “ears hang low,” as i believe, was merely a way to make fun of the “Continentals.” All follow-ups (Can you throw it over your shoulder?) are just emphasizing that they may have had different ears that may have been slightly larger, and the British emphasized and made fun of them. THUS, “Do your ears hang low?” is SOLELY an insult, and i do know for sure that it was sung by the British to the Americans.

    ~Jacob

    I hope that clarifies as much as possible!

  10. Ok, so this is just me, but I had only heard a different version of this song that involved the female chest (ears=boobs). My mom has been singing it that way all my life. I was shocked to find that it was not, in fact, mamories….

  11. Jibbs debut single “Chain hang low” has a history that most people are not aware of. The particular nusery rhyme that the song mimics is “Ears Hang Low” The history behind this song is that during the civil war Confererate soldiers would remove certain body parts (primarily ears and testicles) from the deceased corpses of freed slaves who were fighting as Northern (Yankee) soldiers after their battles. These “trinkets” were then placed on a rope necklace and worn as a trophy piece. As the lyrics to the nusery rhyme state “do your ears hang low, do they wobble to and fro… etc” “Can you throw them over your shoulder like a (Continental) soldier”. This word (Continental) took this nursery rhyme from racist jargon to playful melody. The word that filled this space was (Confederate) as in Confederate soldier. Other nursery rhymes have done the same i.e. Eenie, Meenie, Minee, Moe catch a Ni**er by his toe. Not Tiger. My question to young people black and white is that “Does knowing the history of the nursery rhyme change your opinion of the New single by Jibbs. ” Personnally knowing this myself I can’t stand to hear the song. It seems to advertise our ignorance as a people. I wrote this note to inform people of this. Knowledge is power and Ignorance IS NOT BLISS; its SUICIDE. If you don’t know, you can’t change. So black, white, indifferent tell me how you feel about this now that you’ve attained knowledge

  12. Nursery Rhymes and Lullabyes are nice and sweet. I would not call the words to that “continental soldier jargon” either. That is…… if it even true. Just plain ole trash! As far as Jibbs….. maybe he knows maybe he doesnt. Not saying its right or wrong we all need to enlighten each other about what we need to know as truth. Thats just nasty walking around with rotten flesh around your neck.Educate the children on facts… Dont hate. And… Thank “God” our ancestors were brave enough to go through with what they did so we can show our pride right here and now. It could be the same way. Be some body for what they went through.

  13. Do your ears hang low?
    Do they wobble to and fro?
    Can you tie them in a knot?
    Can you tie them in a bow?
    Can you throw them o’er your shoulder
    Like a Continental Soldier?
    Do your ears hang low?

    Do your ears hang high?
    Do they reach up to the sky?
    Do they wrinkle when they’re wet?
    Do they straighten when they’re dry?
    Can you semaphore your neighbor
    With a minimum of labor?
    Do your ears hang high?

    Do your ears hang wide?
    Do they flap from side to side?
    Do they wave in the breeze
    From the slightest little sneeze?
    Can you soar above the nation
    With a feeling of elevation?
    Do your ears hang wide?

    Do your ears fall off
    When you give a great big cough?
    Do they lie there on the ground
    Or bounce up at every sound?
    Can you stick them in your pocket
    Just like Davy Crockett?
    Do your ears fall off?

    Does your tongue hang down?
    Does it flop all around?
    Can you tie it in a knot?
    Can you tie it in a bow?
    Can you throw it o’er your shoulder
    Like a Continental Soldier?
    Does your tongue hang down?

    Is your nose too long?
    Does it look right or wrong?
    Can you wave it to and fro
    While you sing a silly song?
    Do you look like a beagle
    Or a bald-headed eagle?
    Is you nose too long?

    Is your mouth too wide?
    Does it tilt from side to side?
    Do you have a funny smile?
    Do you look cross-eyed?
    Do you purr like a cat?
    Do you look nice and fat?
    Is your mouth too wide?

    Do your eyes pop out?
    Do they bounce all about?
    Can you catch them in your hand?
    Or do people scream and shout?
    Can you catch them in a dishy
    Or are the darn things just too squishy?
    Do your eyes pop out?

    Do your teeth hang out?
    Do they rub against your snout?
    Can you use them like a pick?
    Can you take them in and out?
    Can they do the boogie woogie
    Like they do in any movie?
    Do your teeth hang out?

    You can never change your nature
    That is quite beyond your reach
    If you’re born to be a lemon
    You can never be a peach
    But the law of compensation,
    This good lesson tries to teach
    You can always squeeze a lemon
    But you cannot squeeze a peach!

  14. The particular nursery rhyme that the song mimics is “Ears Hang Low” The history behind this song is that during the civil war Confederate soldiers would remove certain body parts (primarily ears and testicles) from the deceased corpses of freed slaves who were fighting as Northern (Yankee) soldiers after their battles. These “trinkets” were then placed on a rope necklace and worn as a trophy piece. As the lyrics to the nursery rhyme state “do your ears hang low, do they wobble to and fro… etc” “Can you throw them over your shoulder like a (Continental) soldier”. This word (Continental) took this nursery rhyme from racist jargon to playful melody. The word that filled this space was (Confederate) as in Confederate soldier. Other nursery rhymes have done the same i.e. Eenie, Meenie, Minee, Moe catch a Ni**er by his toe. Not Tiger.

  15. I’ve been trying to find this on the internet, too, because the song is stuck in my head. I have come across the black-hating story multiple times and, interestingly, the story is always told in the exact same words. Clearly, the story has a single origin and everybody has been copying/pasting from the original. In light of that, I bet somebody made it up (there are plenty of people who look for nasty things to believe)and everybody else has just been copying that person’s rumor.
    Mark Twain said, A lie can travel half way around the world before the truth can get its shoes on.

  16. Ditto, Gruff & The Answer, please provide a source for your information. I would very much like to read more about what you have submitted.

  17. I’ve found a source on the net that confirms what i’ve always guessed (but who knows if either of us is right): ears was plugged in to clean the song up to nursery rhyme level. The original word was ‘balls’ and it was a military song. I mean, think about it… what military do you know that would sing about their ears?

    very dirty version:
    http://www.hootisland.com/text/songs/doyour.html

    just mentions the connection:
    http://www.frymybacon.com/articles/articles.php?articleID=184
    http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1194992

  18. I’m surprised more people don’t know this. I haven’t heard that exact elaboration on the song as posted by Jessica, but I’ve heard similar renditions.

    The original word was balls/bells. It was in reference to, surprise surprise, the testicles. Continental soldiers did a lot of walking without a lot of support for the ol’ family jewels. I can’t quite remember, so don’t quote me on this, but I think bells was before balls, and there was something even before that. A middle-english term.

    It’s also not the first version of the song. ‘Continental Solder’ was plugged in long after the song had been sung. The New York public library, if any of you are in town, has the oldest variant I’m able to find with some of the song in antiquated english.

    The tunes we associate with it, either Sailor’s Hornpipe or Turkey in the Straw, weren’t added until the 1700′s, before that I think they probably just invented the tune as they went.

    I find it almost angering that they took a song, cleaned it up from it WAS only to sing it to kids. Invent another damned song!

  19. The racist history behind the nursery rhyme “Ears Hang Low” is in fact true. The original melody was from the following minstrel song:

    Turkey in de straw, turkey in de hay
    Turkey in de straw, turkey in de hay
    Roll ‘em up an’ twist ‘em up a high tuc-ka-haw
    An’ twist ‘em up a tune called Turkey in the Straw

    One traditional version has a chorus with these lyrics:

    Turkey in the hay, in the hay, in the hay.
    Turkey in the straw, in straw, in the straw,
    Pick up your fiddle and rosin your bow,
    And put on a tune called Turkey in the straw.
    Another goes:

    Turkey in the straw — Haw haw haw
    Turkey in the hay — Hey hey hey
    The Reubens [farm people] are dancing to Turkey in the Straw
    Hey highdy heydy, and a haw haw haw

    Another Minstrel song with the same melody was named “Zip Coon”

    O ole Zip Coon he is a larned skoler,
    O ole Zip Coon he is a larned skoler,
    O ole Zip Coon he is a larned skoler,
    Sings posum up a gum tree an coony in a holler,
    possum up a gum tree, coony on a stump,
    possum up a gum tree, coony on a stump,
    possum up a gum tree, coony on a stump,
    Den over dubble trubble, Zip Coon will jump.

    [Finish to each verse.]
    O zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.
    O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.
    O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.
    Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.

    O it’s old Suky blue skin, she is in lub wid me,
    I went the udder arter noon to take a dish ob tea;
    What do you tink now, Suky hab for supper,
    Why chicken foot an possum heel, widout any butter…

    Both of the previous songs were performed by white men in blackface to (a) entertain whites and (b) further disparage and disenfranchise blacks. As far as the modifications to the “Ears Hang Low” song itself, those most likely came after, but the songs origins are dark and open up not quite healed wounds for many that know that history

  20. Zip Coon and Turkey in the Straw can be found all over the internet and in your local library, I think that’s all the reference one should need

  21. I am under the impression that the lyrics to Ol’ Zip Coon were originally sung by blacks as a way of disparaging other (upity?) black folk, i.e. field hands singing it about “house niggas” or other “Uncle Toms”. It was later adopted (stolen) by white, black-face minstrels. The tune, of course, has been around since forever, with countless untracable lyrics.

    –T

  22. I am under the impression that the lyrics to Ol’ Zip Coon were originally sung by blacks as a way of disparaging other (upity?) black folk, i.e. field hands singing it about “house niggas” or other “Uncle Toms”. It was also sometimes used by dark-skinned blacks against light-skinned, as indicated by the line above, “Suki Blue-Skin”. It was later adopted (stolen) by white, black-face minstrels. The tune, of course, has been around since forever, with countless untracable lyrics. The version my Aunt Laura used to sing to me in my cradle was:

    Oh, I had a little chicken, and it wouldn’t lay an egg,
    So I poured hot water up and down it’s leg,
    And the little chicken cried,
    And the little chicken begged,
    And the little chicken laid me a hard-boild egg!

    She called it Turkey in the Straw, but it’s the same tune. Anybody else recall this version?

    –T

  23. To which I’d like to add a new verse, made up right here and now:

    Ol’ Zip Coon is an ol’ fiddle tune,
    Been around forever, since before da moon.
    An’ da moon hides her face ever now an’ again,
    But on de ol’ fiddle, Zip Coon is a-playin’!

    That’s part of the charm of this type of songs, they can usually be easily ad-libbed if you can’t remember the ‘real’ lyrics.

    –T

  24. Yeah lol. they do this kind of stuff all the time like if you just search up barney hate songs on you tube or around there you’ll find tons of stuff like that like tune from the bible, nursery rhymes etc. its funny tho.

  25. When I was a little girl I learned a song from my mother. “Do your ears hang low? Do they wobble to and fro? Can you tie them in a knot? Can you tie them in a bow? Can you throw them over your shoulder like a cotton-pickin’ soldier? Do your ears hang low?” I now know it was supposed to be a ‘continental’ soldier, and that cotton-pickin’ was a reference to African-Americans. I imagine my mother and her playmates taking pride in their clever ad-lib, but when I learned it there was no such meaning revealed to me.
    There was joy in my mother when she sang. Her eyes lit up and she smiled so beautifully, I didn’t care much that I no idea what the words meant. I have no idea how many times I repeated those words before I realized what they really meant. It had been a household term that was used so generically it rolled off my tongue like a trick, “You’re cotton-pickin right about that!” There were other derogatory terms used, but I knew from the tone of my eldest relatives that they were intended to be hurtful, and I chose not to repeat them.
    It was frustrating at first, realizing there were words I had to stop using. But it has helped me understand something. Words are not harmless. They are capable of passing along hatred to the very children we want to protect with love. We don’t even see ourselves doing it half the time. And when we do, we think a ‘well I didn’t mean anything by it!’ covers us just fine. Fact is, a child doesn’t feel the need to understand something before repeating it.

  26. I found this site in my quest to find out if the posting about the song being a reference to the ears of slaves. I, too, came across the explanation relative to the Jibbs song and wanted to find more truth.

    I still don’t know if it’s true but what prompted me to respond is that someone stated earlier that an explanation couldn’t be found on Wikipedia but then when someone posted the explanation referencing Jibbs it was dismissed as stemming from a single source and probably just someone trying to spread a rumor. I find that odd since Wikipedia is written by individuals with limited source material referenced at all. I edited an entry on Wikipedia just today and the edit went through immediately, broadcast to the entire world with no approval process whatsoever.

    So, why is something valid if found on Wikipedia which is cut and pasted many times over with unverified material all the time, paraphrased and re-written on other sites and made to look like an additional reference but what was posted about Jibbs just somebody trying to circulate a rumor?

    I have found most information referencing black history or having anything to do with American slavery is easily dismissed even though the post substantiated an earlier reference on here that “Continental” solider did indeed reference Confederate soldiers. If that’s true, why it sooooo difficult to believe the rest may be as well?

    Much like Native American history, black American hisory is often an oral history. How much non-white history is in the average hisotry book? Extremely little. You get Crispus Attucks and Martin Luther King (if you went to a good school), wouldn’t it stand to reason that if this is indeed 100% true, it might not be something easly found on the internet?

  27. Amusingly, like the original author I started thinking about this song as the result of an ice cream van playing it. The reference to continental soldier is interesting. Has anyone found more info on the confederate reference?

  28. FROM WHAT IVE BEEN STUDYING THE NURSERY RHYME IS ACTUALLY RACIST.

    Do your ears hang low,
    Do they wobble to and fro,
    Can you tie ‘em in a knot, can you tie ‘em in a bow,
    Do you throw them o’er your shoulder like a continental soldier,
    Do your ears hang low?

    WHEN THEY SPEAK OF EARS HANGING LOW THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT AFRICANS WHO HAD EAR PIERCINGS. THE ONES THAT WERE SO BIG THEY’RE EARLOBE WOULD ACTUALLY START TO SAG. BECAUSE OF THE SIZE OF WHAT THEY PUT IN THEIR EAR .

    AND WHEN THEY SAY CAN YOU THROW EM OVER YOUR SHOULDER LIKE A CONTINENTAL SOLIDER THEY ARE REFERRING TO TIMES DURING THE CIVIL WAR WHEN CONTINENTAL SOLDIERS OR CONFEDERATES WOULD CUT OF THE EARS OF SLAVES AND STRING THEM UP WITH ROPE AND WEAR THEM LIKE SOME TYPE OF TROPHY.

  29. Honestly, as much as most of you are trying to pinpoint this song to a specific race or racism, has anyone really stopped to think that it might just be a normal childrens rhyme? The line about “can you throw o’er shoulder like a continential soldier” maybe they are just talking about being able to throw your ears over your shoulder? It’s called the fireman’s carry. When a soldier would get injured in war, if able, the soldier that was nearest to them would’ve carried them to safety by throwing them over their shoulder and running to safety. If you look at all the other lyrics of the song, it refrences all the other body parts of a person, maily that of which is on a person face or head. It’s just to show that nobody is perfect.

  30. I KNOW THIS ONE! The original son was “do your balls hang low”… I guess because those soldiers were experiencing a bit of a dry spell, being away at war and all. I’m not a pervert, I swear! But it’s the truth!!!

  31. I could have sworn the soldier was “cotton-headed”, meaning white haired and really old. And since I’m getting there, I’m finding that nearly everything hangs low – ears being no exception.

    Heard the song back when I was a child in the 1940s or ’50s, when the “hanging factor” made little sense to me. Have things changed.

    Just discussing the “everything hangs low” with an old friend last night and I can’t get the blessed song out of my head. #@%*#!!!

  32. I was hearing my mother-in-law singing this song to my son (8 months). She was making all the hand-motions that go along with the song. They were having a wonderful time together! The tune got stuck in my head too! I surfed the Internet to find out more about the history of the song. I came across this site and was shocked to read that it might refer to slaves. Should I ask my mother-in-law to stop singing this song?
    A part of me says no – let them continue the joy they are having.
    A part of me says “yes” – out of respect for what happened to the slaves, choose another song (there are so many to choose from).
    As for me, I’m teaching my son the song, Moonshadow, by Cat Stevens.

  33. Hell yes the true meaning of this song is indeed racist and quite sickening. And anyone who has blogged on this topic and has not agreed, is either a racist or an idiot. And anyone who could sing or let our children listen to this garbage is a racist or an idiot! And if someone is completely oblivious to the facts, this is truly sad. We have access to entirely too much information, therefore no one should be unaware of his or her history. Of course they will try to hide it from us, but that’s where we are supposed to get off of our asses and stop worrying about Who has the biggest MTV Crib?, or Who is going to bring in the most album sales, 50 Cent or Kanye West? We as a people (And I mean black people) need to be smarter than what we are portraying to be, because believe it or not, we are still being looked at in the same manner as we have in the past, but today we are carrying our own balls and ears, only to wobble to and fro’ on Gucci link chains, and 24” rims. Somthing to think about!

    Phillyosofy- Philadelpia, PA

  34. One explanation I heard for the “Do your balls hang low” is literally the fear factor – in times of stress testicles naturally retract – hanging low means no fear!

    Now I am not quite sure about the throwing over the shoulder bit…

  35. How to put this…throughout the history in America and Europe, there have been tragic events that somehow became inspiration for children’s entertainment in songs, nursery rhymes and stories. They are parts of all of our histories, they are treasures of our pasts. There is no shame in questioning and learning the reasons why or how…the shame would be in lessons not learned.

  36. We were told as children that the song refers to the British and the Hessians, and their uniforms, presumably the lappets on their uniform hats. Apparently the song is much older than the Civil War, so it could not possibly refer to the testicle trophies referred to above.

  37. I had the following thought about this song and have no way of proving it.

    1) The two tunes the lyrics are sung too are simple and were popular long ago.

    2) Singing was / is a major part of the military from cadences, drinking songs, to relief from boredom

    3) The military hasn’t changed much and my experience is that cadences are ever changing. One group insults another with a clever lyric, the next group switches it around passes a new insult along.

    So, I suspect that most any explanation of this song is correct. One possible path would be Brits teasing the continental (colonial or europe) soldiers, time passes and it morphs from unit to unit. Then the civil war happens, both armies know the song and modify it to their various points of view. Returning soldiers still singing the ‘army’ versions return home and similar to “ring around the rosy” parents and/or children clean it up to keep out of “trouble.”

    This song is amazingly easy to rewrite: e.g:

    Do your words hang low?
    Do they wobble to and fro?
    Can you twist them in a lie?
    Can you twist them in a fraud?
    Can you throw them back and forth,
    like an average politician?
    Do your words hang low?

  38. Here’s a new thought…I wonder is “ears hang low” is a derogatory reference to someone with a genetic mutation….someone who may be metally retarded. Low set ears is sometimes associated with Down Syndrome for example.

  39. You people are a bunch of asses! How did you graduate high school in the US and not know what a Continental Soldier is? You fucking idiots should be drafted so you can figure it out. By the way, I am a grunt and a teacher. Morons.

  40. Might I offer a slightly less fanciful explanation of this song?

    The subject of the song is a bunny. Unlike humans, bunnies have ears that can hang low or hang high (at least in cartoons). When a bunny slings his ears over his shoulder like a continental soldier, they now resemble the kind of a hat that a French legionnaire wears, that has long flaps hanging down below.

    I don’t believe any sort of tripe about racists and civil war trophies. That is a bizarre stretch of a perfectly harmelss and sweet song about bunnies.

  41. I never knew the racist lyrics to this song–having been in the army I heard the “balls’ version. HOWEVER, I later lived in a mountain, black community where an unknowing Ice Cream venor got beat up for driving the truck through the neighborhood playng the music to this song. Now I know why.

  42. You ppl need to take a slave history course ….. Ears hang low is a racist song which originated from confederate soilders deforming deceased freed slaves and wearing their ears as necklaces

  43. I agree with Dave. Everyone on this board that didn’t know what a Continental Soldier was owes about 1,000,000 push-ups, report to your nearest VFW ASAFP.
    And the song was about BALLS, and about sounding off like you had a pair. Vulgar macho marching songs have a storied tradition in the military (I’ve worn out pairs of boondockers singing them myself). Things have to get tamed down when you return to civilian life. That’s where the fantasy elements of long-eared bunnies comes into play.

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