Saturday, December 20, 2014
Who is Virgil Caine? The way Robbie Robertson portrays his protagonist in The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, he is rather a sad sack— nostalgic for a demolished past, stranded in a desolate present. What makes him compelling is how deep his emotions run, not only about the Civil War but about his own familial roots, and his compulsion not to forget where he comes from. On a subterranean level, there are hints that Virgil, like the dealer in Chest Fever, is at least partly a shyster— when he tells us “Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood/ And I don’t care if the money’s no good/ You take what you need and you leave the rest/ But they should never have taken the very best,” the issue of “taking what you need” exteriorizes that he resorts, in lean times, to some form of thievery. This contradiction in Virgil Caine— his sense of being deeply rooted in a familial past, and with it, his deep emotional connection to the world around him (here expressed in bereavement), balanced by a shyster’s instinct to take from others what he does not have (even the hint that Robert E. Lee himself was no slouch at shyster routines), makes him the kind of voice which offers a well-rounded sense of humanity. By the song being released a century after the action here takes place, we also get a sense that to listen to Virgil Caine is to listen to a portrait which has the capacity to ring down the proverbial ages.