Melungeon Liner Notes

The song “Melungeon” is an introduction to a group of people found in the southeast, with a heavy concentration in the Cumberland Gap Region. This mixed race has a mysterious origin that has puzzled people for hundreds of years. As early as 1654, European explorers in the Appalachians met up with people having dark skin and caucasion features, living in log cabins and practicing Christianity. They told the explorers that they were “Portyghee ”. As more encounters happened, there was a common push for these persons of color to be pressed to leave the areas that the Europeans were settling and move to less desirable properties. Prior to 1870 (and the introduction of The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution) these people were denied the right to vote or to own land due to their race classification in the US Census. Consequently the Melungeon people migrated towards the deepest hollows they could find, such as those in the Blackwater area of Lee County, Virginia, or the high spots on the mountains, like Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, Tennessee.
Melungeon folk tended to be like the typical Appalachian peoples, mostly humble farmers who kept to themselves. A moonshine matriarch, Mahala Mullins (see “Aunt Haley”), was one of the notable ones covered by the press. The texts often painted the Melungeon’s picture as being unsavory hillbilly folk, who were lazy, thieves or moonshiners. Will Allen Dromgoole, a popular Tennessee writer and poet wrote a particularly scathing report of the Hancock County Melungeons in 1891. In one passage she described them as “…exceedingly shiftless, and in most cases filthy. They care for nothing except their pipe, their liquor, and a tramp “ter towin.” They will walk to Sneedville and back sometimes twice in twelve hours, up a steep trail though an almost unbroken wilderness, and never seem to suffer the least fatigue.” Formerly, being referred to as a Melungeon was a slur, and a stigma no one wanted to carry.
In more recent years, this attitude has changed. One of the major influences in this was the release of Wise County Virginia’s native, Brent Kennedy’s book, The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People : an Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America. The expansion of the internet and genetic testing has increased questions people have about their genealogy. This mixed race of people surely has mixed origins. One thing is for certain, they survived the tribulations they encountered for generations and their descendents populate many areas of this country today.