Harris is from a career military family. Her father, Walter Harris (1921-1993), was a Marine Corps officer, and her mother, Eugenia (1921-2014), was a wartime military wife. Her father was reported missing in action in Korea in 1952 and spent ten months as a prisoner of war. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Harris spent her childhood in North Carolina and Woodbridge, Virginia, where she graduated from Gar-Field Senior High School as class valedictorian. She won a drama scholarship to the UNCG School of Music, Theatre and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she began to study music, and learn the songs of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on guitar. She dropped out of college to pursue her musical aspirations, and moved to New York City, working as a waitress to support herself while performing folk songs in Greenwich Village coffeehouses during the 1960s folk music boom. She married fellow songwriter Tom Slocum in 1969 and recorded her first album, Gliding Bird. Harris and Slocum soon divorced, and Harris and her newborn daughter Hallie moved in with her parents in Clarksville, Maryland, a suburb near Washington, D. C.