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Earliest known recording of Joni Mitchell, thought lost forever, found in B.C. basement

When Victoria resident Barry Bowman heard the first few chords of that baritone ukulele, he knew he had finally found it.

At first, Bowman worried the old tape his eldest daughter found in Bowman’s ex-wife’s basement in 2015 would disintegrate if he tried to play it, considering it was more than 50 years old. 

But play it did.

And with those first notes, Bowman was transported back in time to 1963 when he was a teenage radio DJ in Saskatoon and he asked one of his pals, an aspiring young folk singer named Joni Anderson, if she wanted to record an audition tape.

“I never realized that there she was, this young lady at 19 years old, would one day be Joni Mitchell,” Bowman said Monday on The Early Edition.

For more than half a century, Joni Mitchell has stood out as one of the most distinctive voices in Canadian music. (John Felstead)

Anderson, who changed her surname when she married folk singer Chuck Mitchell in 1965, would go on to become one of the best known songwriters of all time, win multiple Grammy Awards and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But the first known track Mitchell recorded happened that fateful day at the CFQC AM radio station when her buddy Bowman rolled on her cover of House of the Rising Sun.

And now that the song has been recovered, it has been made available to the public by Mitchell herself.

According to jonimitchell.com, the singer is launching a series of archival releases, starting this fall with a five-CD set covering the years leading up to her debut album, 1968’s Song to a Seagull. In tandem with the announcement, Mitchell released the performance Bowman had had all these years — which she says is her earliest known recording.

Watch Barry Bowman and recording engineer Dale Baglo play Joni Mitchell’s original 1963 recording of House of the Rising Sun on reel-to-reel tape:

But it took some time after Bowman’s daughter found the tape before it made it into Mitchell’s hands.

Bowman said he hadn’t spoken to Mitchell since the 1960s, so he contacted Canadian music producer, David Foster, hoping he could help. Bowman was told the find was significant but he would need permission from Mitchell or her manager to do anything with the recordings.

It turns out it’s kind of hard to track down a world famous singer and call her up, so Bowman sat on the tapes for awhile.

In 2017, another blast from the past came when Bowman got an email from someone living in the Okanagan who also used to hang with Bowman and Mitchell back in the day.

“Barry, I just finished reading Reckless Daughter and we’re not in it,” wrote the old friend, referencing a biography written about Mitchell that year.

As luck would have it, that friend had Mitchell’s personal assistant’s contact information and Bowman was able to resume his mission.

“She was as surprised as I was,” Bowman said about Mitchell, now in her 70s, when he did manage to reach her.

Bowman said he was able to reunite with his friend, who invited him to spend the weekend, return the tapes and reconnect.

Those tapes are now the part of the series of discs Mitchell is releasing.

“I think it was a wonderful way for the story to end,” said Bowman.

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