Published in print and online by Sierra magazine, March/April 2014
Name: Jo Billups and Karen Harvil
Location: Lillian, Alabama, and Waveland, Mississippi
Contribution: Musical activist duo Sassafrass
ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISTS HAVE A REPUTATION FOR BEING A LITTLE INTENSE. ARE PEOPLE LESS INTIMIDATED BY YOU BECAUSE YOU’RE MUSICIANS?
Jo Billups: We’re holding guitars, you know? Holding banners is wonderful, we’ve done that, but guitars are instantly a different thing for people. Our goal is a healthy planet, so the hope is that the music will bring that forward, that through the music and the message more people will get involved.
Karen Harvill: We were raised by mothers who said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Our joke is “Okay, we’ll just sing it.”
SHOULD SOME OF US STICK TO HOLDING BANNERS?
Harvill: Whatever your natural talents are, there’s a use for them in the environmental movement.
Billups: We feel there are enough people singing love songs that our skills can be better used with an environmental theme.
We were raised by mothers who said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Our joke is “Okay, we’ll just sing it.”
WHAT’S THE BEST PROTEST LYRIC YOU’VE WRITTEN?
Harvill: I think our song “The Trees Are Dreaming” sums things up. The chorus goes, “How do we fix our polluted waters / Our shrinking forests or the madness in the air? / Until we mend the madness of our minds / There will be no solution there, there will be no solutions there.”
HOW DID YOU GET INTO ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM?
Billups: Well, I’m a big Bob Dylan fan, so I started with protest music as a teenager. And I grew up fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, so protecting the gulf was a natural thing that developed, and that spread out to a more global attitude and philosophy. The activism just kind of followed as I became more aware.
Harvill: Even though I’m older, I also was taken by political music in high school. And then I had children. And I began to look at things going on around me, watching things be degraded. It’s heartbreaking.
SO WHAT’S THE STORY BEHIND THE SPELLING OF YOUR BAND’S NAME?
Harvill: We added an extra s. We figured there’s two of us, so …
Billups: There were already five groups called Sassafras, so we added the extra s.
—interview by Julie Eng
Read online at SierraClub.org