Decades-old recording of Joni Mitchell finally go from old box to a boxed set

VICTORIA — Two long-forgotten tapes featuring some of the first recordings of Joni Mitchell have come out of storage and into circulation, thanks to a serendipitous turn of events involving retired Victoria broadcaster Barry Bowman.

Bowman, who spent three decades on air at CFAX 1070, was a disc jockey at CFQC AM in Saskatoon when he first met Mitchell in 1963.

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She was an inexperienced 19-year-old playing music under her given name, Joni Anderson, when Bowman brought her into the studio for an hour-long session.

Nine songs were recorded that night, featuring Mitchell and her ukulele, which he said she hoped to use as an audition tape to attract managers and booking agents.

"I propped her on a stool, put a mic in front of her, went in the booth and put down the recording," Bowman said. "And that was it."

The songs, once thought to be lost, will be made public on a forthcoming five-disc boxed set, Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967), which is due Oct. 30.

The story of how the music finally got into Mitchell's hands — 55 years after the fact — is ripe for the rock and roll history books.

After the 1963 recording session, the two parted ways, Bowman moving on to other jobs in radio and Mitchell relocating in Los Angeles.

Bowman said he quickly misplaced his copy of the session, following a move to Regina. A spare recording of an unknown singer from Saskatoon would not have been top of mind at the time, Bowman said.

"During my career, moving on from station to station, these things tend to kind of get lost."

He would soon realize the flaws in that reasoning. When Mitchell eventually became a well-known singer, in 1968, he immediately recognized her as the girl from the Saskatoon studio.

The more famous she became, the more he bemoaned the loss of the tape. He relayed the story to friends over the years, but never had the evidence to back up his claims, until his daughter discovered an old box of odds and ends in his ex-wife's house five years ago.

"And sure enough, I spotted this one tape immediately. I recognized it. And then I noticed that there’s a second tape. I had not remembered that there were two tapes."

The very first recordings by Joni Mitchell, before she was Joni Mitchell, is a significant find. Bowman’s crystal-clear recordings of Mitchell singing folk standards House of the Rising Sun and John Hardy, among others, was even more historical because these were songs she would eventually cut from her repertoire.

Mitchell has often voiced her dissatisfaction over the "folk singer" part of her career, but Bowman’s tapes helped her look at the era with a new perspective.

"The early stuff, I shouldn't be such a snob against it," Mitchell, 76, said in a statement.

"A lot of these songs, I just lost them. They fell away. They only exist in these recordings. For so long I rebelled against the term, 'I was never a folksinger.' I would get pissed off if they put that label on me. I didn't think it was a good description of what I was. And then I listened and … it was beautiful. It made me forgive my beginnings."

Immediately after the discovery, Bowman enlisted the help of local producer Dale Baglo to make a digital back-up of the tapes.

Bowman then reached out to Mitchell, who paid for his trip to California two years ago.

A deal between the two was negotiated at the dinner table, with favourable terms for both sides, Bowman said.

"I never expected them to even suggest that I could have some compensation until they mentioned that in the contract."

Mitchell's personal assistant got back in touch with Bowman two months ago and told him a boxed set of early material was in the works.

Discussions increased once Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1 started to take shape, which he said seemed strange. He had already agreed to terms, and the music was theirs to distribute.

Then he was asked to hop on a call with Mitchell, who asked if he would like to contribute liner notes for one section of the box. He agreed, and was sent a digital proof of his notes, once the design was finalized.

"She said, 'I'm going to attach something to an e-mail that you're going to love.' "

He said he opened the file, and there it was: A photo of Bowman, from 1963, accompanying his recollection of their time together.

—Victoria Times Colonist

This report for The Canadian Press was published Sept. 15, 2020.

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