The nine members of the Slewfoot Family Band unpack their van, which is getting smaller and smaller, according to oldest sibling Jordon, and haul their equipment into the dining room of Pine Villa Care Center, Melrose. It’s a St. Patrick’s Day celebration, and the band are all in their green costumes, matching the derby hats worn by the residents. Violins, guitar, harmonica, recorders, bodrun (an Irish drum) a kit-built “suitcase bass,” and a ukulele—more about that—line the stage. Eventually the performers will play all of them, sometimes several at the same time. Left at home is a homemade dulcimer. In chilly weather, its 66 strings take too much time to tune. A portable dance floor is laid to prevent scratches on the floor, as the kids clog, tap, do an Irish jig, and even jitterbug, while sneaking in a little bit of the Charleston and walking like an Egyptian.
“They learned to dance from videos,” mom Karen Becker explained. “Their dance instructor is Mr. Smith from Kentucky.”
They learned violin from an instructor, but they taught themselves to play the rest of the instruments. Two of the girls, Breanna and Monica, have joined the Long Prairie Chamber Orchestra, and they, along with Jordon, played for this year’s Melrose High School musical called Country Is.
Some of the girls from the Becker family dance on St. Patrick’s Day at the Pine Villa Care Center in Melrose. The group is called Slewfoot. Photo by Jean Paschke
The Slewfoot band proceeded to entertain for the next two hours with a combination of Irish, spiritual, folk, gospel, and patriotic music. Their selections range from an enthusiastic rendition of Boil Them Cabbage Down, which won them second place at a Minnesota State Fair contest, to a touching ballad called Army Hat, given great pathos and sincerity by Jordon.
The kids do much of their own arranging and sometimes write new material. The girls sew the costumes, which vary by the season. Karen announces the numbers and tosses in some gentle humor, some of it aimed at a predominantly German audience containing only one professed person of Irish descent. Resident charmer Martin, who has Down syndrome, obviously enjoys performing, hamming it up, dancing when no one else is, and contributing some very original chords on his ukulele. The crowd loves it when the kids play their fiddles between their legs or the whole group plays each other’s instruments in a way that has to be seen to be believed.
The family band started evolving some 10 years ago. The kids either took music lessons or were self-taught, and so they volunteered at a Sauk Centre nursing home, and it grew from there. The name Slewfoot, explained family matriarch, announcer, and performer Karen, came about this way: “The word ‘slew’ means many, and we have many feet. You can see and trip over all kinds of shoes in our house.”
The family consists of four girls and four boys at this count, ranging in age from 21 to 6. They all live at home in Grey Eagle, where mom and dad, Duane, educate them, a decision the couple made before they were married. Whether they all stay at home will depend on what direction their lives take them. Karen said,with a twinkle in her eye, that perhaps the girls’ choice of sons-in-law may depend on the lads’ musical abilities.
“Nobody wants to give up yet,” she said. In 2015 they did 180 gigs, including Morrison, Benton, Otter Tail and Becker State Fairs, churches, and more nursing and residential homes. In December 2015 alone they did 41 shows.
“We just let it go where God leads us,” Karen said.
This spring, the band cut a CD called 100 Tapping Toes at Hammond Eggs Studio in St. Cloud. It contains an assortment of their favorite tunes.