Leadbelly Unmasked

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Photos by Andre Gagne

You know the blues runs deep in your soul when it’s your actual pigment but that’s exactly what happened to RBC Bluesfest’s official mascot, Leadbelly. Not much is known about this illusive giant. 5 years ago the blue wonder appeared in Ottawa just in time for festival season and he hasn’t left us yet. 

Was he just hoping from one festival to the next?
Can he actually play seven different instruments upside down and blindfolded?
Is it true he taught B.B. King everything he knows?
Did he ride the rails into his new Ottawa home from the famed Crossroads?
Did Robert Johnson give him his famous wardrobe?

We don’t know and Leadbelly isn’t talking. The only thing –at least for now anyway- that we know for sure is that, every July, you can spot him wandering the Festival grounds in his signature stripped suspenders and red hat high-fiving enamored kids and receiving copious hugs from his fans. What has the lifelong wanderer sticking around here in O-town? It could be the kick back he gets from the merchandising deal he signed for all those t-shirts and posters he's on. Then again, it could be that he just really loves tulips! 

With the second half of Bluesfest beginning tonight we couldn’t quite pin down Leadbelly himself for an interview (the man has work to do!), but we did manage to glean some interesting facts about the life and times of the beloved mascot by talking to his agent Sara K. Speed.

Ottawa Life: When and how did Leadbelly get involved with the festival? What was he doing before that?

Sarah K. Speed: (laughs) We like to joke that he was always in the hearts of everyone who has ever attended the festival! In truth, Leddy joined us about five years ago. He's surprisingly quiet about what he was doing before he joined us and he won't say how long he's planning on staying, so we're just appreciating his presence in the meantime.

Leadbelly is an unusual name, how did he come by it?

It's actually a tribute to an American blues musician from the early to mid-1900s named Huddie William Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly.

What is a normal day at Bluesfest like for Leadbelly?

He likes to take some quiet time before he goes out on the festival grounds, so he he'll take a couple of minutes and "get into character", so to speak. Then he makes his way around the festival grounds, waving hi to patrons, posing for pictures, high-fiving, fist-bumping, whatever the situation calls for. He does an amazing impression of the Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Men we had a few years ago, so if you see him onsite you should definitely ask to see it.

What does he do in the festival off-season?

Well, in the month or two before a festival Leadbelly starts gearing up by doing some appearances to promote the festival, but the day after the festival ends is the first day of training for next year's Bluesfest. As you can imagine, it takes a lot of energy to be the physical manifestation of the spirit of Bluesfest! To get ready for the physical requirements of the job, Leadbelly likes to do yoga and he walks a LOT. He's really into colouring books at the moment, too, he finds they help him relax, though finding crayons that are easy for him to hold can be a little challenging.

He's got the blues so much it's his colour but who would he say are some of the best Blues musicians?

(laughs) That's well-put! Okay, so first and foremost, he'd say his namesake, the original Lead Belly. His work has been covered by and influenced a variety of other artists, from Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra to Nirvana and Red Hot Chile Peppers, so people are probably familiar with his music even if they're not specifically familiar with him.

He also greatly admires BB King, who he actually got to see for the first time at Bluesfest a few years ago. He's not often speechless, but that performance left him without words.

What goes into Leadbelly's festival attire? How does he keep cool?

It's all about comfort! It's usually pretty hot in July, so he definitely wants something that he can move around in. And those suspenders will obviously never go out of style.

What are his favourite things about Bluesfest?

Oooh, that's a tough one… Definitely a toss-up between the music and the people. Every day brings a different kind of energy from the music and the fans attending the show, and Leddy thrives on those different energies. Especially the volunteers! He loves posing with them for pictures as they're making their contributions to the festival whether it's at Bead Tent, Beer Tent, Volunteer Check-In, anywhere! They're so positive and excited, and that's exactly his jam.

What's the hardest part about being the official RBC Bluesfest mascot?

People don't really talk about it, but there's a lot of pressure on being a mascot. You're kind of the face of everything that's happening, and it can be tough when things aren't going well. Being in public can be like being under a microscope, which is why you don't see him in public very often before the festival starts. It's also challenging because he always has to be "on" during the festival, and everyone has those days when you're feeling a little more blue. But for the most part, he loves his role and looks forward to coming back for as long as we'll have him.