Most people think rock music got its start as an identifiable genre in the 1950s with artists such as Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley. Not so. As Paul Collins points out in the current issue of The Believer
, there was a thriving tradition of rock music during the nineteenth century. In fact, rock music was invented in 1785 by a retired sailor named Peter Crosthwaite in the Lake District village of Keswick. Of course, the nineteenth-century version of rock music was a bit more low-key than its twentieth-century successor, since it involved music played with rocks, as opposed to guitars and drums.
When I first saw Collins's article, I thought he had to be joking. But no, a little research confirmed that Victorian rock music was quite real. I found an article in the Galphin Society Journal (Aug, 1989) about the "Till Family Rock Band," a group that toured quite widely during the 1880s, written by a modern-day member of the family, A.M. Till. He writes:
Their rock harmonicon was constructed from stones from near their home. The first lithophone of this kind, made from stones found in the Lake District was built in 1785, and from that time until the late nineteenth century several so-called 'rock bands' became well known. The late Professor James Blades has written about them in his textbook on percussion, and also, under 'Lithophone', in The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (London, 1984). He also recorded briefly the 5-octave Richardson rock harmonica (constructed in 1840). These instruments have a wonderful, lively tone.
Below is a picture of the Till Family Rock Band, posing with their rocks. They look like rockers to me.