I'm glad you asked. =) We got back from the convention a couple of hours ago. It was at the Irish-American Heritage Center
, and there were about 150 people there...mostly middle-aged, but there were also some young, hip-looking kids. Also, mostly white, but not totally. And there were an awful lot of, oh, eccentric
folks there. (We fit right in.) I was sitting next to a very large and friendly British woman in a purple velvet muumuu.
The first thing that was surprising about the music was that it was SO LOUD. Everyone was singing, exultantly, at the top of their lungs. It was loud like a rock show, loud enough to give you a headache...but a good, uplifting kind of headache. All the sections were basically trying to outdo each other. The altos, in particular, had this incredibly loud, nasally buzzing sound. It was great. A different person would come to the middle of the room to lead each song, and they yelled out the number of the song they were leading so everyone could turn to that page. Somebody would give starting pitches, and then the group would just spontaneously start to sing the song, loudly, first with the shape-note syllables and then two or three times with the printed words.
We took a break for lunch, which was the best potluck I've ever been to. (You know how some potlucks consist of nasty jello salad and barbecue potato chips? Well, this potluck was freakin' gourmet. Seriously.) Then we went back and sang for a while longer, but we didn't stay the whole time, because we were getting hoarse and my arms were getting tired from holding up the 500-page hardcover book. I couldn't bring myself to just put it in my lap, 'cause it's Bad Singing Form. Some people were holding their books up the whole time, though, and if anything, they sang more loudly and energetically as the day went on, waving their arms around to keep the beat. Incredible, especially considering that some of these people were quite old.
After particularly good songs, sometimes the group would spontaneously break into applause, but the goal was to hurry along and not really pause too much between songs. It was a point of pride to be able to sight-read the music (or have it memorized already) with no lead time. I improved at singing the shape-note syllables ("fa", "so", "la", "mi") as the day went along, but I did much better with the actual words. Here and there, though, I did get a fast shape-note passage right, and when I heard myself singing the syllables along with the more experienced people in my section, it was electrifying. I felt like I was speaking in tongues.
If you want to know about the history of shape note and Sacred Harp, this site
seems to have loads of information. From what I gathered, this particular group was started by southerners who organized bus trips to Chicago, almost like missionaries, and gradually more and more Chicagoans and midwesterners got involved. You should check it out.