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About Billy Denham

My Musical Heritage

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arthurdenhambanjo.jpg
Arthur T. Denham

I wish my ancestors had kept their original Melungeon songs alive, but I understand that they left the Melungeon area to make a new life for themselves and their families; away from the prejudice and stereotyping that they were forced to live under. It seems they wanted to blend in with the white American society, and to do this they had to change many things about their way of life, which sadly included their music. They may not have preserved the actual Melungeon tunes, but they could not abandon their love for playing music. As I look at it, Melungeon music has blended in with other forms of music, much like the Melungeon people has blended in with other nationalities. I believe the music of the 1920s, 30s and even 40s contain the influence of Melungeon musicians.

My grandpa Denham, (in the picture above) who was born in 1891, played banjo with a traveling Medicine Show. When my father and his brothers got old enough to play, they formed a family group and played at local theaters and dances. My Dad played mandolin and one of his brothers played guitar. My Dad told me that once when they were playing on a riverboat, that he didnt have a pick, so he used a tooth. It was a human tooth! I dont remember him saying if it was one of his or not. I remember going to Grandpa Denhams house and always hearing music. "Soldiers Joy" and "Bile Them Cabbage Down" seems to have been favorites of his; he would play these for me practically every time I would go to his house. I also remember grandmaw telling him to "shut that thing up", it was about to drive her crazy. I dont remember ever wanting to be anything but a musician. I can remember teachers and neighbors asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I would say, "Play music".

I am proud of my Melungeon heritage and equally as proud of my musical heritage and so appreciate the opportunity to share it with you.

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For more on the Melungeon people, check out the website listed below.