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Blind couple to perform during Sunday services at First Lutheran Church in Bemidji

Elizabeth Slaughter and her husband, Roosevelt, will perform Sunday at First Lutheran Church in Bemidji. Patt Rall | Bemidji Pioneer2 / 2

BEMIDJI – Although Roosevelt Slaughter has not played publicly since 2003 when brunch service was discontinued at the Northern Inn, he will return to accompany the choirs Sunday at First Lutheran Church.

Roosevelt and his wife, Elizabeth, began their music careers more than 45 years ago. Both are congenitally blind.

Roosevelt, born in Mississippi, met his first piano at age 8 while at the Piney Woods School in Piney Woods, Miss. It is an African-American private boarding school, and that time it was considered an alternative school for students with a range of disabilities.

The school was chartered by the State Department of Education in 1913 to teach disabled and blind children and is still located near Jackson. In 1950, Helen Keller influenced the start of a school strictly for the blind and Piney Woods students were transferred there.

Roosevelt went on to study organ and general Bible at Grace Bible Institute in Omaha, Neb., playing for churches and revivals across the south before moving to Chicago, where he met his future wife.

“We were introduced by a mutual friend and married in Chicago in 1969,” Elizabeth said. They have two grown sons.

Born in Chicago, Elizabeth earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology and secondary Education from Roosevelt University in Chicago. She worked in social services for a time along with other jobs that would allow a blind person access to employment but their main source of income was and still is as church musicians and music instructors.

“We learned the Braille music notation,” said Elizabeth. “We study the music measure by measure and right and left hand placements. Then we put the two together. I visualize a keyboard in my mind when I play the organ.”

Roosevelt is proficient in playing secular music as well as gospel, hymns and spirituals. But when he sits down at the piano, no matter the genre, the emotional depths immediately captures the attention of the listener.

Recently the Slaughters talked about the differences between hymns, gospel and spirituals.

“The words for hymns are taken directly from scripture,” Elizabeth said. “Gospel is music written by African-Americans based on the hymns and sacred songs they heard while attending church services with their owners. Although gospel has roots in the European tradition, the songs were written after emancipation.”

“Gimme That Old Time Religion” is a good example of a gospel song which has its roots in England. Roosevelt affirmed that this is the correct spelling although more commonly seen as “Give Me…”

“And then there are spirituals which were sung by slaves to support each other and also to give an underlying message,” she said. “A spiritual like ‘I Just Steal Away and Pray’ gave comfort but also gave courage during times of unending sorrow.”

Spirituals are an American-African contribution to music as is Jazz.

The Slaughters will play during two services Sunday at Bemidji’s First Lutheran Church on Ninth Street and Bemidji Avenue North. They will accompany the adult choir at the 8:30 a.m. service and then take a break for the coffee hour when they will meet and greet people from 9:30-10:30 a.m.

The second service starts at 10:30 a.m.

Sarah Carlson, director of music at First Lutheran, spoke with enthusiasm about their forthcoming appearance.

“We are so glad to have them come and play and I want to thank Kent Nerburn and Louise Mengelkoch for letting us know about them,” Carlson said. “They will also play with the children’s choir when I hope people start clapping along to ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.’”