Born on a farm in Oklahoma, Harris' family moved to a California farm when he was a boy, and he grew up working on the farm. He later claimed that the sounds of nature had a profound effect on his music.
Harris studied at what is now UCLA and also at the University of California at Berkley. His most influential teacher in America was Arthur Farwell. Farwell encouraged Harris to look to American music for inspiration. He also introduced Harris to Walt Whitman's poetry. Harris set Whitman several times throughout his life.
After a trip to the East Coast for a premiere, Harris was encouraged by Aaron Copland to study with Nadia Boulanger, and Harris did for three years. A fall that resulted in an injury to his spine forced Harris to return to the United States in 1929.
While he was immobilized after his fall because of surgery, Harris learned a new method of composing away from the piano. Harris wrote his first symphony in 1933. He also began teaching at Mills College that same year, followed by posts at several prestigious music conservatories in America.
Among his more than 200 works, Harris' symphonies and instrumental works are most well-known. He often incorporated American and Anglo-American folk song into his compositions. Many of his works bear patriotic titles, such as Epilogue to Profiles in Courage–JFK and Kentucky Spring. He has a set of solo piano pieces entitled American Ballads. Harris set Whitman's poetry in his cantata Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun (1955) and also in his work Rejoice and Sing (1976) for baritone (or mezzo-soprano), string quartet and piano. Harris' Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight is a cantata setting the poetry of Vachel Lindsay.
Among Harris' solo songs is the much anthologized "Fog," a setting of Carl Sandburg's poetry.
--Christie Finn Source: Dan Stehman's article in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians