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"Wicked Jack" or "Wicked John and the Devil"

 

Overview: The blacksmith who makes mean-spirited choices when granted three wishes by St. Peter or an angel is often called Wicked Jack in America, but Richard Chase preferred to call him John to avoid confusion with the young folk hero Jack. Often the blacksmith is thoroughly mean (except for being kind to strangers) but sometimes he has a specific sinful trait. He has a wife in some versions but not others. He sometimes makes deals with the devil in order to get more time on earth and to gain wealth. He tricks the devil, and sometimes the devil's children, to keep the devil away, but when he dies, he is rejected at the gates of both heaven and hell. Many versions have a pourquoi ending, explaining the origin of swamp gas or jack-o-lanterns when the blacksmith is doomed to wander the earth forever with a bit of fire.

Appalachian Tales Related Appalachian Tales

Tales from Other Regions

Photos

Chase, Richard. Wicked John and the Devil. Illus. Joshua Tolford. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,1951. Picture book with black-and-white and color illustrations depicting the red devils outwitted by a blacksmith so mean that he is denied access to heaven and hell when he dies. "Based on an oral version I first heard told by Mrs. Jenning L. Yowell of Albemarle County, Virginia." The endpapers contain a great double-page scene of John walking between heaven and hell, with fires, a pitchfork fence in the foreground, and a big group of devils. See AppLit's Chase bibliography for reviews and articles in Walser archive about 1963 controversy over this book in an East Greensboro, NY school.

Chase, Richard. "Wicked John and the Devil." American Folk Tales and Songs. 1956. Rpt. New York: Dover, 1971. pp. 21-31. Chase heard the tale from Mrs. Yowell in Charlottesville, VA, in 1945. He notes parallels with an Irish tale, "The Three Wishes," and other tales all over Europe, as well as "Jacky-My-Lantern" and "Impty Umpty" in Uncle Remus, and the one in Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men. He had heard of the story about a man too mean for hell being applied to Hitler. He also mentions the success of dramatizations by himself and school groups. In a footnote Chase summarizes an article about jack-o-lanterns starting in Ireland with potatoes and other vegetables hollowed out for Halloween. The article contained "A Boy Called Jack Who Would Not Obey His Parents," in which Jack, turned away from heaven and hell, puts the chunk of coal thrown to him by the devil into a potato and wanders the earth with a Jack-O-Lantern.

Chase, Richard. "Wicked John and the Devil." Grandfather Tales. Boston: Houghton, 1948. pp. 29-39. With one drawing by Berkeley William, Jr. of a black devil with a cloven hoof and horns standing in the doorway of Wicked John's blacksmith shop. The Appendix in this book gives Mrs. Yowell of Charlottesville and her daughter Alois and Peck Daniel of Bristol, VA as sources. The St. Peter/Patrick part came from Peck Daniel and Mrs. Yowell called the main character Wicked Jack. The fire-bush, or Japan quince, is "common to Southern yards."

Chase, Richard. "Wicked John and the Devil." Reprinted with other tales about "fooling the devil" in Yolen, Jane, ed. Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon, 1986, pp. 359-66. Yolen notes that American versions of tale type 330, The Smith and the Devil, and The Smith and Death, can be found all over the South. She also observes that "The motif 'Devil sticking to tree or stool or chair' can be traced as far back as ancient Greek and Hebrew sources" (Notes, p. 490). Also reprinted in Tudor, Tasha. Favorite Stories. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965, with illustrations by Tasha Tudor.

Chase tells "Wicked John and the Devil" on an audio cassette recorded during a class lecture/discussion on types of folklore at Appalachian State University in 1975. Chase noted that this tale was known to blacks and there are two versions in Uncle Remus. He said that Indian children in Michigan, who grow up in an oral tradition, laughed much harder at this tale than his present audience. In this version of the tale, St. Peter gives John back 15 cents before making him leave heaven. His one good deed had been giving 15 cents extra change to a boy selling a country newspaper, Grit. Chase explained that he got this part of the tale (which was not in print) from Presbyterian preachers who did skits and made fun of each other, telling jokes about getting to heaven first. In Richard Chase Papers 1928-1988, W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection, Appalachian State University.

Chase tells "Wicked John and the Devil" on the radio in Davis, James A. The Bard of Beech Mountain. Radio broadcast from Station WBT (Charlotte, NC) May 30, 1963 as a program in the series Project Sixty. 2 cassettes. 60 min. Archived in North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill. Davis, writer and producer of the program, gives background on Chase and folktales. Excerpts are played from Chase's visits to schools during a tour while he lived on Beech Mt. He sings several songs with the audience, plays the harmonica, discusses the nature and importance of folklore, and tells "Wicked John." He does not include the part about change for Grit or any explanation for John's ball of fire being seen on earth at the end.

Photos Below: The Jack Tale Players perform "Wicked John and the Devil," Ferrum College, March 1, 2006:  St. Peter checks his book of good and evil deeds. Wicked John the blacksmith shows his meanness. The devil (director Rex Stephenson, bottom right) orders his two children to go after Wicked John.


 

Photos by Suzie Kelly

Stephenson, R. Rex. "Wicked John and the Devil." The Jack Tales. Schulenburg, TX:  I. E. Clark, 1991. Reprint Woodstock, IL: Dramatic Publishing. Story theatre dramatization, as performed by The Ferrum Jack Tale Players (performance photos from 2006 above). Wicked Jack 2009Wicked John will help only a crippled old beggar man who turns out to be St. Peter. When granted three wishes, John asks for his rocking chair, hammer, and fire bush to torment those who use them.  He uses them to trick and chase away the devil's two impish sons and then the devil himself. After John drops dead, St. Peter shows him the long, long, long page full of bad deeds in his book of life. Humorous touches include St. Peter's reading of the names Johnny Appleseed and John the Baptist while looking for John, Wicked in the book. After John is turned away at the gates of heaven and hell, he takes the fire ball the devil gives him and points out that he can be seen walking the Dismal Swamp between Virginia and North Carolina, although school teachers often say that it is just swamp gas out there in the moonlight. (Photo at right from 30th anniversary celebration of Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, 2009. See an older photo in Jack Tale Players web site.)

"Wicked John and the Devil." Told by Ray Hicks. Transcription in Sobol, Joseph. "’Whistlin’ Towards the Devil’s House’: Poetic Transformations and Natural Metaphysics in an Appalachian Folktale Performance." Oral Tradition, vol. 21, no. 1 (2006). Downloadable at Oral Tradition web site. Center for Studies in Oral Tradition. Columbia, MO. With audio recordings made at Ray Hicks's home in 1985. "This study centers on a performance of one of Hicks’s signature tales, 'Wicked John and the Devil." Discussing the relationship between Richard Chase's research and books and the Hicks-Harmon tradition of oral storytelling, Sobol argues that Chase may have introduced the tale to the Hicks family while Ray was young. Fascinating discussion of of how the tale reflects Ray Hicks' personal philosophy and aesthetic, and his identification with the blacksmith who is not a simplistically wicked folklore character. Hicks' "poetic transformation," told without laughter, produces "a tragic elegy" in contrast to "the typical jocular tale" (p. 19). At the end Hicks says associates the Brown Mountain Lights with the starting place of John's return to earth with fire the devil gives him.

"Wicked John." Told by Orville Hicks. Carryin' On: Jack Tales for Children of All Ages. Audio cassette. Whitesburg, KY: June Appal Recordings, 1990. In this version, Jack is condemned for the single sin of cursing. At the end Jack is sent away from heaven and hell to make a hell of his own, with nothing about swamp gas or jack-o-lanterns reflecting his wanderings in the world.

Woolridge, Connie Nordhielm (adapter). Wicked Jack. Illus. Will Hillenbrand. New York: Holiday House,1995. Cartoonlike comedy and haunting mystery combine in this story of mean Jack the blacksmith, who is excluded from heaven and hell after he outwits the devil. Woolridge includes a brief note citing Chase’s and Zora Neale Hurston’s versions of the tale as her sources. The illustrations add many details of action and character to the narration. See details on AppLit Trivia Page.

 "The Cantankerous Blacksmith." Told by Connie Regan-Blake, with music by The Kandinsky Trio. In Tales of Appalachia: Stories and Chamber Music. CD. Salem, VA: Flat Five Press and Recording, 2004. When Regan-Blake tells "The Cantankerous Blacksmith" with music by Mike Reid, she cites Ray Hicks, Barbara Freeman, and Richard Chase as her influences in this fascinating retelling of "Wicked John" with great music. She also tells "Big Jack, Little Jack," which Ray Hicks called "Lucky Jack and Unlucky Jack." The trio (Alan Weinstein, Elizabeth Bachelder, and Benedict Goodfriend) also plays "Dark Eyes" (a Russian folk song) and "Gypsy Medley (blending the Russian "Kolinka" and a Hungarian tune).

"Wicked John and the Devil." In Smith, Jimmy Neil, ed. Why the Possum's Tail is Bare and Other Classic Southern Stories. New York: Avon, 1993. "Told from her family tradition by storyteller Jackie Torrence of Salisbury, NC" (not in the Appalachian mountains but Torrence learned mountain folktales from Richard Chase's collections and from mountain storytellers; see note in next entry below). In Torrence's version, Wicked John lives in the mountains of NC. He has a wife who locks herself in the closet because he is so mean, and an angel grants him 3 wishes. The third wish does not involve a bush but enables him to keep his wife from taking money out of his purse, and the third time the devil comes for him, he tricks the devil into turning himself into a quarter that is trapped in John's purse. (The devil's children are not in this story.) When John dies the neighbors open his purse so the devil escapes and is still flying around.

"Wicked John and the Devil" by Jackie Torrence. Best-Loved Stories Told at the National Storytelling Festival. Jonesborough, TN: National Storytelling Press and Little Rock: August House, 1991. pp. 51-58. The book has 37 tales, including "The Day the Cow Ate my Britches" by Ray Hicks, "Cap o' Rushes" by Ellin Greene, "C-R-A-Z-Y" by Donald Davis, and other Appalachian storytellers. Torrence's tale has her note about this tale deriving from her childhood experience of hearing a school librarian telling stories that she appeared to be reading from a book. Elsewhere Torrence explained that she didn't know until later that she had been read Richard Chase's folktales at school in the reader's African American voice. It seems likely that she learned "Wicked John" from Chase, not just from her family (see note in entry above). (This book is also reprinted in The Complete Best-Loved Stories Told at the National Storytelling Festival, 1995).

"Wicked John and the Devil." Told by Jackie Torrence. Country Characters. LP and audio cassette. Chicago, Il: Earwig Music Co., 1983 and 1986. From an evening of storytelling live in Lexington, MA to benefit Arts Created Together. Recorded at Cary Hall, Lexington, MA. Also includes Old Dry Frye, Sop Doll, "The Maco Station Light," and "The Fiddler's Dram." Torrence is from east of Appalachia in NC but retells many mountain tales as well as African American tales.

Crawford, Lauren. Dye Fry and Wicked John and the Devil. Script published by New Plays for Children, 2002. "Two short Appalachian folk tales in one volume, 25 to 35 minutes each."

"John Smith and the Devil." Told by Alan Longmire. 2001. "The Anvilfire Story Page" in Anvilfire.com!, a web site for blacksmiths by Jock Dempsey. This tale says the blacksmith wasn't very mean but wanted people to stay away from his work. He plays the fiddle and tells stories for the stranger who turns out to be St. Peter. St. Peter is disappointed that John uses his three wishes on things that will torment anyone who touches his rocking chair, hammer, and rosebush. His encounters with devils are also similar to older versions of the tale. When he goes to Heaven, St. Peter tells him that he's in trouble for giving John such bad wishes, so John can't come in. When he's barred from hell, he is not given a light and no one knows where he is at the end.

"Wicked John and the Devil." Told by Rick Carson. Giggles and Ghosts. Audio cassette. Elizabethtown, KY: Alpha Recording, 1991. Carson includes humorous modern touches such as depicting the second devil's child as Elvis, with allusions to famous Elvis Presley lyrics.

Kinsella, Marilyn A. Taleypo the Storyteller. Web site contains drama choir adaptations (also adaptable as reader's theater) of "Wicked John and the Devil" (1980s, based on Richard Chase) and "Little Eight John" (1981, based on Treasury of American Folklore by B. A. Botkin, 1944). The Illinois storyteller who calls herself Taleypo also includes retellings of a number of stories, including "Tailypo" and "The Hairy Toe," and the Cherokee tales "Grandmother Spider Brings the Light" and "The Legend of the Red Cedar" (the latter about the creation of the seasons and the sun calendar at Cahokia Mounds, Illinois).

"Wicked John." In sound recording (8 tape reels) performed by Bill Thorn, Lucien Rouse, Edna Ritchie, D. K. Wilgus, Guthrie T. Meade, Homer Ledford, Pleaz Mobely. Recorded by Richard L. Castner at a folk music festival in Lexington, KY, 1955. Deposited by Castner in 1955 in Archives of Traditional Music, Indiana University, Bloomington. A large collection of folk music and "recitations of folk tales including The Yankee who went South, Old dry fry, Corpse killed five times, Jack tales, Wicked John" (WorldCat).

The Jack-O-Lantern Branch Heritage Trail at the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Hardy, VA, makes reference to the African American tale about Jack and the devil.

Related Appalachian Tales:

"Old Scratch and the Mean Woman." In Smith, Jimmy Neil, ed. Why the Possum's Tail is Bare and Other Classic Southern Stories.  New York:  Avon, 1993. Reprinted from Emma Deane Smith Trent's East Tennessee's Lore of Yesteryear (Whitesburg, TN: self-published, 1987). A woman who is mean to her family is scared (but afraid to admit it to anyone) when she hears a voice that tells of Old Scratch's approach. There is a vivid description of the devil as he carries her away, and her family never knows where she went. "When Old Scratch gets ye, you're gone for good!" (p. 85).

"Jack and the Devil." In Hicks, Orville, and Julia Taylor Ebel. Jack Tales and Mountain Yarns, As Told By Orville Hicks. Illus. Sherry Jenkins Jensen. Boone, NC: Parkway Publishers, 2009. Afterword by Thomas McGowan. pp. 76-79. Jack meets up with the devil one day and tricks him in three arrangements they make to plant 'taters and corn and raise hogs together. Part of this tale, and the Bobtail stories below, is similar to "tops and bottoms" trickster tales in other traditions, in which the smart character gets the useful part of the vegetables they share, Jack taking the bottoms of the 'taters and the tops of the corn. After they divide 200 hogs, the devil's hogs go over to Jack's side to eat his corn and after Jack claims he twisted the tails of his pigs, the devil can't tell which are his because they all have twisted tails. "Old devil never could get the best of Jack" (79). This book contains discussion of Jack and the Hicks storytellers by Orville Hicks, Ebel, and McGowan.

"Bobtail and the Devil." In Peck, Catherine, ed. QPB Treasury of North American Folktales. Introduction by Charles Johnson. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1998, pp. 251-52. The devil is too "dumb and lazy" to win two contests with Bobtail, which involve growing potatoes and raising hogs. (Reprinted from Leonard Roberts. South From Hell-fer-Sartin: Kentucky Mountain Folk Tales. Lexington: U Press of KY, 1964.)

"How Bobtail Beat the Devil." In Chase, Richard. Grandfather Tales. Illus. Berkeley Williams, Jr. Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1948, pp. 88-98. After the tale is told, Old Robin in Chase's frame story sings "The Devil and the Farmer's Wife," in which a man in Ohio is glad the devil takes his wife, but she is so mean and violent the devil's children convince him to send her back (see below). 

"The Devil and the Farmer's Wife" is a traditional humorous ballad about a nagging woman taken by the Devil, who is so abusive in hell that the little devils persuade the Devil to send her back to earth (also known as "The Farmer's Curst Wife," British Child ballad 278). According to musician Robin Greenstein, John McCutcheon said he added the final verse "Guess this proves that the women are stronger than the men / To go down to hell and come back again." Other versions refer to women being better than men or worse than men, to go to hell and back. In John McCutcheon: How Can I Keep from Singing? Audio recording. June Appal Recordings. Appalshop, c.1975. Also includes "Omie Wise," "Froggie Went a' Courtin'," and other traditional songs. With musicians Tom Bledsoe, Rich Kirby, Gary Slemp, and Jack Wright. A prose tale with some simliarities is "Death and the Old Woman."

"Freddy and his Fiddle." In Roberts, Leonard (collector). Old Greasybeard: Tales From the Cumberland GapIllus. Leonard Epstein. Detroit: Folklore Associates, 1969. Rpt. Pikeville, KY: Pikeville College Press, 1980. pp. 115-17. A poor boy gets three pennies from a rich man for three years of work, and gives them away to a series of ragged men who are in greater need than he is. The third man gives him three wishes, which appear to be poor ones: to make anyone compelled to dance who hears him play his fiddle, to shoot anything he aims at, and to make anyone unable to say no to anything he asks. These abilities enable him to get revenge on the rich man he worked for and give him good luck and riches wherever he goes. This tale is the source of Anne Shelby's "Molly Fiddler," below.

Shelby, Anne. "Molly Fiddler." The Adventures of Molly Whuppie and Other Appalachian Folktales. Illus. Paula McArdle. Chapel Hill: Univ. of NC Press, 2007. pp. 24-29. Shelby's based this tale on "Freddy and his Fiddle" from Leonard Roberts' book (above). Molly works three years for a stingy rich man, then gives away her salary of three pennies to women in need. The third woman explains that she is testing Molly, and gives her three wishes. She gets a new pair of shoes, a slingshot that will hit anything, and a fiddle that will make anyone dance without stopping. Molly wins a bet with some boys who think they can hit more with their slingshots, but she gives them some of the money back. Then her enemy Mr. Giant lies about Molly stealing money from him and tries to get her jailed but she plays the fiddle and everyone in town dances. One of the humorous details in this tale is the command for Molly to sing a ballad while the magic helper is granting her wishes: "When she got to the end of the song and all the people in it were dead, Molly opened her eyes" (p. 27).

Soldier Jack wins a contest with devils and gets involved with predicting death and even trapping Death so that no one dies for a long time.

Compare with:

Carleton, W. "The Three Wishes." In Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. Edited and Selected by W. B. Yeats. [1888]. Reprinted online in The Internet Sacred Text Archive. This long literary story contains most of the same motifs that appear in the Appalachian tale except that the third wish does not involve a bush but prevents anyone except the blacksmith, Billy Dawson, from taking money out of his purse (as in Jackie Torrence's version, above). Bill makes a series of deals with the devil that enable him to live seven more years and obtain wealth. Bill has a wife with whom he fights violently throughout their lives. After he dies, Satan bars the doors and tweaks his nose. All the alcohol he drank causes his nose to burn forever and with his tangled beard, country folk call him Will-o'-the-Wisp as he wanders through swampy areas to cool his nose and bothers travelers.

"The Master-Smith." In Popular Tales from the Norse, by Sir George Webbe Dasent. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons and Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1888. Reprinted in The Baldwin Online Children's Literature Project. Also reprinted in SurLaLuneFairyTales.com. This tale contains the three wishes found in American and Irish tales, with the smith wishing for people to get stuck in his pear-tree or his chair or his purse. He then tricks the devil, who has made a bargain to fetch him in seven years after making him the master smith. Other parts of the tale are different, with the Lord and St. Peter in disguise performing feats that the smith attempts to imitate in his forge, with deadly results. At the end it is uncertain whether the smith succeeded in sneaking into heaven, after being barred from hell, by hurling his sledge-hammer into the door while a poor tailor is entering. (Aaron Shepard retells the first part of this tale in "The Master of Masters: A Tale of Norway.")

Some of the same motifs are found in these tales, reprinted in SurLaLuneFairyTales.com:

Hooks, William H. Mean Jake and the Devils. Illus. Dirk Zimmer. New York: Dial Press, 1981. Three stories Hooks heard while growing up in tidewater North Carolina are told to a boy by GranAnna (based on his storytelling grandmother and aunt). With finely detailed black and white illustrations, both humorous and eerie, by a German artist. Hooks comments that Southern devils had human characteristics and could be appealing and amusing, but they are still devilish.

  • "The Meanest Man in the World" tells of Jack the tinker who was mean to men and women when they came to get things repaired. The plot is the same as "Wicked Jack," with Jake wandering the Great Dismal Swamp at the end, with his ball of fire from Big Daddy Devil, which people call fox fire.

  • In "Jake-o-My-Lantern," Daddy Devil is out for his pre-Halloween mischief, and Devil Junior, then Baby Deviline follow him, letting the fire go out in hell. The Devil thinks he's finished until Baby thinks of getting some of the fireball back from Mean Jake. Devils can't take back gifts, but he makes a deal with Jack to get half the fireball in return for a night out of the swamp. Jake tricks the Devil into giving him Halloween off every year, by getting him to go up a tree for food, and carving a cross in the tree, which stops the Devil. While the Devil waits for sunup when he can get down, the fireball glows in a pumpkin on the ground. GranAnna makes a Jake-o-my-lantern with a cross for a nose to keep Jake away.

  • In "Jake and the Fiddle," GranAnna fears for the boy who wants to play, telling a tale about the days when only devils had fiddles. Pretending to be the Duval family, the three devils sneak into a dance and play so wildly that the young dancers can't stop and the old folks are under a spell and unable to help. Baby Deviline starts to lead the dancers to hell but Mean Jake makes his annual Halloween appearance and takes her fiddle. Jake insists he is going to learn to play, so the Devil makes his angry child a new fiddle. Jake wins a contest of wills by playing so badly that the Devil finally tells him the magic words enabling him to play like a devil. A girl who hears him disappears into the swamp, and Jake delights in whispering magic words into young men's ears to make them play like devils.

Carey, Valerie Scho. The Devil and Mother Crump. Illus. Arnold Lobel. New York: HarperTrophy, 1987. Mother Crump is a stingy baker very much like Wicked Jack. Lucifer appears in red velvet and then in disguise as a gentleman in green, and grants her three wishes to avoid her wrath. The wishes allow her to play tricks on Death, two little devils, and then Lucifer. When she dies, she is rejected in Heaven and Hell but gets into Heaven with a coal from the devil. Her baking fire and rattling of pots in the sky are called heat lightning and thunder. (Also published as reader's theater in Stories on Stage, ed. Aaron Shepard. H. W. Wilson Co., 1993.)

There are many African-American variants of this tale in oral traditions and collections such as "Jacky My Lantern" and the other Uncle Remus tale mentioned by Chase (see above), and Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men (1935). "How Jack O'Lanterns Came to Be" is Hurston's tale in which Sixteen (a big man named after his shoe size) is sent away from heaven and hell because he's too powerful. He's not a wicked man like Wicked Jack or John but he can lift mules and capture the devil when his master asks him to. Chase notes in American Folk Tales and Songs that he first knew the Devil's line "and start you a Hell of your own!" from Mules and Men.

"Jack-O-My-Lantern." In Botkin, B. A., ed. A Treasury of Southern Folklore: Stories, Ballads, Traditions, and Folkways of the People of the South. New York: Crown, 1944. pp. 722-24. Reprinted from Folk-Lore from Maryland (Whitney and Bullock, Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society, 1925). Jack is a wicked man who treats his family badly, not a blacksmith. Much of the story about Jack tricking the devil has to do with drinking. In a section of Devil Tales after Hurston's "Big Sixteen and the Devil" (see above).

"Stagolee." In Julius Lester. Black Folktales. Illus. Tom Feelings. New York: Grove Press, 1969. Reprinted with a new introduction by Lester, 1991. pp. 75-90. Based on a folk song that Lester had recorded, also made famous by other singers. Stagolee is like a tall tale hero when he beats all kinds of tough opponents, escapes death, and challenges God, Death and the Devil. He chooses to stay in Hell where the energetic black people are having more fun than he sees in Heaven. He is a lawless, hard-drinking womanizer from a Georgia plantation. Like some versions of John Henry's character (unlike Wicked Jack), Stagolee is both criminal and well-loved. Lester includes ironic and humorous allusions to modern popular culture.

Newhall, Brent P. "Jack o' Lantern." In the Folktales section of Encyclopedia Mythica. Jack is a lazy farmer who tricks the devil to stay out of hell (gets him up a tree where he needs Jack's help) but ends up being excluded from heaven and hell, so he fashions a lantern from a gourd or turnip wanders the world. This summary is listed as a popular European tale but no details on sources are given.


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