The story

Why was there a surge of writings about the Illuminati in America in the late 1910's?

Why was there a surge of writings about the Illuminati in America in the late 1910's?



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I came across this interesting graph on Google's Ngram Viewer service:

It looks like there was a massive spike in the occurrence of "Illuminati" in American literature starting around 1915 and ending around 1921. Why did this occur? Was their an event in American history that caused an increase in interest about the Illuminati?


Sadly, either ngrams doesn't provide the details required to find the statistical culprit(s), or I'm not skilled enough to know about them. However, looking through the actual hits provides some really historically interesting stuff.

For instance, Google divides their detail pages into year ranges. However, there's one "range" in that blip that is just a single year (1918). So I'm guessing that's the true blip.

Clicking on that, the main hit seems to be the book New England and the Bavarian Illuminati, by Vernon Stauffer. This looks like it might be a typical conspiracy theory book, but in actuality it appears to be a somewhat respected history of Illuminati conspiracy theories in the early United States. Its still in print apparently. It may have to go on my list.

The book seems to particularly concentrate on the conspiracy theories as they relate to politics in the early USA. It seems many Federalists felt that the Jeffersonians were controlled by the conspiracy. Sort of the late 18th century version of birthers. From the Amazon blurb:*

It tells how the Federalists, including the New England clergy in particular, seized upon the idea that the Illuminati were behind the actions of the Democrats. Only a far-reaching conspiracy could explain the irreverent habits and searing attacks of the Jeffersonians. Fear of the secret Democratic Clubs, magnified by fear of the French Jacobins, made such a conspiracy readily believable

There are also several hits from that period on things published by publishers from Allentown, Pennsylvania of all places. One, Philosophical Publishing Company, is still in business. This is the same period that Allentown became a hub of beer brewing. Typically this happened in places that experienced a lot of immigration from Germany, particularly Bavaria. I suppose it shouldn't surprise anyone that Bavarians might be interested in the Bavarian Illuminati.

But to get back to the question, it looks like the real surge in interest in the Illuminati was probably around the turn of the 19th century. What you saw in the early 20th was perhaps an echo, at least partly based on the late 18th century surge being far enough in the past to have become a valid subject for historical study.

* - One important bit of context here: In early America it was New Englanders who frequently used religion as a political cudgel, and chiefly Southerners (particularly Baptists) who strongly supported the separation of Church and State.


Google N-Grams are very pretty look at but they work best only for large-scale trends (i.e. "vampire" "werewolf" "zombie" "mummy" "Frankenstein" is interesting), and even then, they are somewhat flawed. There are two reasons that I'd be inclined to distrust the graph:

  • Google does not make available the data on the corpus that the N-Grams are searching. It's not even searching ALL of Google Books, and it's unclear what's actually in Google Books. See http://arxiv.org/abs/1501.00960 for a discussion of what's actually under the hood of Google Books in general.
  • The spike that you're seeing is actually very small. At it's highest, it's only .0000275% of the corpus, which, even if you're searching 5 million books, is only about 135 mentions.

If you're interested in something more representative, you could try the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) at BYU: http://corpus.byu.edu/coha/?f=texts_e.


Count Basie vs. The Manhattan Transfer: “A Study in Brown”

Count Basie, a famed jazz pianist and jazz orchestra leader, wrote a tune called “A Study in Brown.” It sounds like the average big band tune, with ample time for piano solos. We can only make inferences about Basie’s reason for that title and tune, such as the fact that jazz’s roots are in improvisation styles popular in African American bands of New Orleans, African rhythms, and the blues. When Duke Ellington wrote “Black, Brown, and Beige” in 1943, the connections and program were more obvious because places in the music clearly imitated the sound of hammers, African American spirituals, and included some lyrics. Listen to how “A Study in Brown” is more elusive to a statement like Ellington’s.[1]

While the song was not Basie’s most popular and the intent behind Basie’s song is unknown, a few people have covered it. Below is a recording of Larry Clinton and his Orchestra in a recording from 1945. Notice, how the sound is smoother, less swung (except for the solo), and slower. Besides being a primarily white group, does the performance add another layer of meaning to the song? [2]

Furthermore, The Manhattan Transfer has made it popular by adding these lyrics.

[Intro:]
Picture this: Rhythm n’ happiness
Souls in bliss ‘n havin’ fun
(Oh no)
If you can’t there’s nothin’ to it
(Oh no)
I’m thinkin’ I have t’ paint you one

[Verse:]
I’m gonna paint a sepia panorama
So full of life the painting will come alive
Bathed in blues ‘n full of drama
An’ all the swing they needed so they’d survive
I’ll add some tans an’ yellow ocher
Such soul! So full of rhythm
An’ then some orange t’ tone up the black a bit
My goal is to be with ’em
Purple haze t’ lull the smoker
What swing! What syncopation
An cherry red t’ loosen the back a bit
That thing captured a nation

An’ then a mere patina of subtle green
Get down with me – you’ll dig my study in brown
To lighten up the purple n’ tone it down
Get down with me – tell about it all over town
A dancing glow to highlight the subtle scene
Get down with me – Dig how I’m paintin’ the town
An’ there you’ll have a study in brown
My study in brown

Well, git brown!
Oh yeah, brown is the pigment
Well, git down!
Oh yeah, that’s what cha’ really meant
Clown!
Oh yeah, that’s some study

We’re puttin’ down “A Study In Brown”
Coda: (That’s why we’re callin’ it, “A Study In Brown!”)
Git brown!
Oh yeah, brown is the pigment
N’ git down!
Oh yeah, that’s what cha’ really meant
Clown!
Oh yeah, that’s some study

Dig what I mean! It’s in the scene
Guitar solo
What cha’ talkin’ ’bout?
(Rhythm-A-Ning)
That’s my scene rhythm n’dancin’
(Rhythm-A-Ning)
You can add real romancin’
(Yep!)
I’ll come clean,
That’s the way I like it
Why’ start real thin, then put some color in
(Rhythm-A-Ning)
Fuschia hues blended with subtones
(Rhythm-A-Ning)
Spread them blues, blarin’ trombones
(Yep!)
Paint that scene
Just the way I like it
A dab or two, that’s how to do it.

Why’ talkin’ loud, hope people hear why’
Hey dad! Mama’s gonn git ‘cha soon as you git home!
That’s the ticket
But where’d why’fin’ th’ wicket?

Certainly, this adds a layer of meaning, and perhaps not a good layer….On one hand, performing covers gives the music more recognition and audiences. However, the lines add a meaning that wasn’t present in the original song, with words that insinuate a certain situation that brown is “bathed in blues and full of drama…all the swing they needed so they would survive.” The lyrics are a white perception of a black musical lifestyle, and the instrumentation, primarily vocal imitation of instruments, has a much different sound and connotation than the original. Additionally, as Dai Griffiths says in his chapter on cover songs and identity, when comparing white and black performances of a song we can’t “underestimate the asymmetry of power between black and white.”[3] We have to ask questions of power and exploitation when considering the Clinton and Manhattan Transfer covers of a Count Basie song. So, can covers be valuable? Perhaps we can’t go as far to say that they shouldn’t be allowed, but then how can we add layers of meaning with covers without exploiting/wrongly appropriating? How can we communicate the complexity of covers to the average person who will listen to the Manhattan Transfer cover and not even know Count Basie?

[1] Count Basie, performer, One Note Samba, Recorded May 11, 2009, Synergie OMP, 2009, Streaming Audio, Accessed April 6, 2015, http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/1019835.

[2] This Is Larry Clinton, Recorded June 1, 2010, Hallmark, 2010, Streaming Audio, Accessed April 6, 2015, http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/li_upc_5050457974817.

[3] Dai Griffiths, “Cover versions and the sound of identity in motion,” In Popular Music Studies, edited by David Hesmondhalgh and Keith Negus, 51-64, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.


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