Standing in front of the bustling crowd in Greensboro’s Common Grounds coffeeshop on Jan. 26, Rhiannon Giddens retrieved her fretless banjo — a replica of an antebellum design, when the banjo was an instrument predominantly played by African Americans. Local songwriters Laurelyn Dossett and Molly McGinn, who were performing with Giddens, stood off to the side to let Giddens sing her song “Julie” in the second half of their shared set.
“This is the very first song I wrote inspired by a slave narrative,” Giddens said in introduction.
And then, a hitch: A man named Will Henry, sitting on the floor and cradling a Budweiser, decided to pipe up.
“That’s not where we’re at right now,” Henry said.
“That’s where I’m at every day,” Giddens said.
Henry kept raising the issue, asking why Giddens was even there.
“I don’t have time for this,” Giddens said.
Giddens began strumming her banjo, staring straight ahead, both impassive and simmering, a forceful presence. A slow-clap began as Henry was escorted out, and Giddens just kept strumming.
“Sorry to be a killjoy,” Giddens said before finally beginning “Julie.” “But someone asked me why I’m here. It’s not to be on ‘Nashville’ [the television show] — though that’s fun. And it’s not to play with [country music artist] Eric Church — though that’s fun. It’s to get these voices out.”
Giddens is currently preparing to release her second full-length solo album, Freedom Highway. The Greensboro native is also a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-time string band with which she has won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album for 2010’s Genuine Negro Jig and been inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
She just happened to be home last week.
“When I realized Rhiannon would be in town, I just said, ‘Hey, let’s play a show!’” Laurelyn Dossett said in an interview immediately afterwards. “‘We don’t need a man. Let’s just play together.’”
Dossett arranged the appearance with Molly McGinn, and it quickly became the hottest ticket in town.
“It happened quick,” Dossett said. “I expected it to be popular, but I didn’t think it’d sell out in four hours.”
The three women had played together — Giddens and McGinn had even lived in Dossett’s carriage house at separate times — but never so intentionally.
“We’ve sung together for rallies and things, with a group, or I’d see Rhiannon at Laurelyn’s house for dinner, or breakfast from time to time when she was passing through town,” McGinn said in an interview. “[This] just kind of came together. We both knew a lot of Laurelyn’s songs, and I think we were all just kind of responding to what’s been happening in the news this week, what we’ve been writing and what the other person played. We set up the bones of what we were going to do beforehand, and then, mostly improvised.”
The Women’s March on Washington especially rang through the set. The trio struck that tone once they began the night with Giddens’ a capella spiritual, “We Rise.”
“Sister of my tears, sister of my cries/ Hand in hand, we stand as one/ We push, we reach, we rise,” they sang in unison before breaking in three-part harmony, Giddens taking the melody, McGinn a low alto and Dossett rounding off the top in her reedy soprano.
“The vibe we’re talking about today is connectedness,” Dossett said after the triumvirate finished the Reverend Gary Davis standard, “I Belong to the Band, Hallelujah.” “Sisterhood. Togetherness. And which songs we all know at the same time.”
The folk idiom lends itself naturally to that kind of sharing.
Giddens commented on it later in the set during the introduction to her song, “Factory Girl.”
“The way I started writing songs was taking folk songs and updating them, in that time-honored tradition,” Giddens said.
“Factory Girl,” for example, is a traditional Irish tune, but Giddens took the narrative in a different direction in her version, framing it around the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, a disaster which killed more than 1,000 garment workers.
“Nothin’ wrong with wantin’ new clothes,” Giddens said before the song. “But at what cost? A $5 isn’t just a $5 shirt.”
Folk music has long been the vehicle of protest, and Giddens recognized that fact in the moment.
After finishing “Julie” to rapturous applause, Giddens addressed the crowd again.
“I am compelled to mention I don’t like to say stuff,” Giddens said. “I just let the music talk… I like to pay my rent, but we’re all here to make a difference making art. To say things. You can make art yourself. We’ve been doing it all night. And you can make your own conclusions — clearly.”
Molly McGinn stepped up to the mic next.
“Maybe one thing, moving forward,” McGinn said. “If someone’s being threatened, do something. Get the hate out. I don’t know if he had hate, but I didn’t like what he was doing. And if we do nothing, it’s our f***ing fault.”
The largely white, middle-aged crowd clapped in approval as the trio went into Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.”
The night didn’t end on somber notes. Immediately afterward, Giddens launched into “Pretty Little Girl with the Blue Dress On,” shredding on her fiddle and yodel-scatting up a storm.
And even afterward, McGinn said in an interview, Will Henry called to apologize to all three women for his disruption.
“It was pretty clear he was horrified and traumatized by his own behavior,” McGinn said. “I told him I accepted his apology. But his behavior that night was unacceptable.”
Hopefully, he’s learned his lesson: You don’t interrupt Rhiannon Giddens.