I was despondent as I walked down Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, past the many businesses that reminded me of her. There was the bar where, one New Year’s Eve, she’d had too much to drink, where I held her long, brown hair as she purged in the parking lot. The pizza joint that made a specialty pie I only ate with her. The library where I sequestered myself the night before finals so that I wouldn’t crash at her place.
We’d been together for more than five years, through college and graduation, when I accepted my first job as a journalist. But now she was gone, our romance ended with a phone call that revealed little about why things had fallen apart. Head down, I wondered how one recovers from such a loss.
The sound of a Mozart concerto prompted me to raise my eyes. There he was. A heavy-set man with shoulder-length hair, the brown curls showing signs of gray, standing outside the Varsity Theatre. His khakis were dirty. The half-tucked button-down he wore over a white T-shirt was wrinkled. The violin under his chin and the bow in his hand were worn.
I’d seen him before, playing that same instrument: on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill as a young boy, my hand in my mother’s as we walked to Pepper’s Pizza for a pregame slice; on Durham’s Ninth Street as a teenager, cutting it up with friends outside a tattoo parlor as we dreamed about defying our upper-class parents with fresh ink and piercings. He was a constant to thousands of kids like me, who’d grown up in the Triangle.
In the twenty minutes I sat there listening to himthis man I didn’t know, but who wasn’t quite a strangeron that stormy February afternoon in 2008, I was reminded of happier times. Reminded that life, even in its worst moments, was full of possibility. Full of hope.
When the wind picked up and the sky darkened, I turned to leave. The music stopped. Suddenly I was overcome by emotion, tears welling up in my eyes. The fiddler placed a soft hand on my shoulder.
“You gonna be OK?” he asked.
“I think so,” I replied.
“Well, I know so,” he said, a half-smile forming on the right side of his mouth. “How about one more song for the road?”
Last week, nearly a decade after a man I only knew then as the Triangle’s ubiquitous homeless violinist sent me on my way with Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” I got to thank David McKnight for his kindness.
I don’t know if he understood. The sixty-nine-year-old’s cancer, an inoperable brain tumor diagnosed on Thanksgiving, is growing so fast that each day he slips away a little more. Family members say it won’t be long now. Days. Certainly not weeks. Perhaps by the time you read this, he’ll be gone.
So as his last days loomed, I found myself wanting to unwrap the legend of how the man came to be knowndepending on where you encountered himas the Franklin Street Fiddler, the Mayor of Ninth Street, or Hillsborough Street’s Handel. My search revealed a man who was so much more than that unmistakable figure Triangle residents have come to know over the last thirty years.
His legacy will be his undeniable musical genius, but before mental illness led him to the streets, I learned, he was a respected journalist known for his thoughtful editorials and keen intellect, a man who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 1978. No matter which of his many ambitions he pursued, he took them on with determination. McKnight didn’t know half-measures.
“This guy was about living with a purpose,” says longtime friend and former bandmate David King. “And he truly lived how he wanted to. I don’t think a whole lot of people can say that.”
The son of civil rights leader and Charlotte Observer editor Colbert Augustus “Pete” McKnight, David Proctor McKnight was born in the Queen City on December 20, 1947, the youngest of three children.
His sister, Carson, says his intellect revealed itself before he started kindergarten, and when he picked up the violin some time around the sixth grade, it became immediately clear just how gifted he was. Before he was old enough to attend school, McKnight absorbed and repeated the lessons Carson and their older brother, Pete, brought home from class. Carson recalls how he and Pete would talk over the day’s news at the table.
“It was really funny because [they] would do a replay of the Chet Huntley-David Brinkley newscast every night, in a satirical way. They were really good at it,” Carson says. “[David’s] mind just worked in a different way.”
And his larger-than-life personalitythe humor, fearlessness, and charisma he brought to everything from social interactions and sports to politics and musicmade him a magnet for friends, from the boys he played basketball and roller hockey with on Truman Road to classmates inside the Charlotte public schools where he excelled as a student and musician. In high school, he was named by his peers “most likely to succeed,” and he was selected as a finalist for the prestigious Morehead Scholarship.
Blake Wilson looks back fondly on the campouts and poker games that defined his childhood friendship with McKnight. And he, too, remembers the music, how McKnight, with little formal training, would pick up difficult pieces with easeand how the violin quite literally saved his best friend’s life.
When McKnight was ten or eleven, Wilson says, “He was riding a bicycle, and he was inadvertently hit by a car and trapped under the car. Well, somehow, the violin was between him and the bottom of the car. I don’t know how the violin protected him, but the legend arose that the violin saved him.”
During his senior year, McKnight began showing symptoms of mental illness. (His friends believe he had bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, but Carson says it’s unclear what condition he suffered from.) In the beginning, it wasn’t debilitating, Carson says. But she recalls often “not knowing which David you were going to get.”
After high school, McKnight was accepted to Duke University. He took the field as the university’s mascot, the iconic Blue Devil. But he chose to leave earlyhe would earn a degree later in lifeand travel the world instead. (He spoke twelve languages, Carson says, including Russian, French, and German.) When he returned home after several years, he took up journalism, becoming a reporter for The Durham Morning Herald, The News & Observer, and his father’s paper, The Charlotte Observer.
“He was a fabulous writer and was a star at each place and wrote many highly influential editorials,” Wilson says. Like his father, he tackled North Carolina’s post-civil rights landscape and became a voice for the disenfranchised. (His outspokenness continued later in life: if you search for McKnight’s name on indyweek.com, you’ll find dozens of lengthy, sometimes pointedly critical comments on the INDY‘s coverage.)
Throughout it all, he kept playing music. When he began working as an editorial writer for The Fayetteville Observer in the mid-seventies, he formed a folk band with coworker Jack LeSueur and LeSueur’s then-wife, Pattie. Triangle, as the band was known, stayed together for five years, playing festivals and small venues across the state. (The band’s work can be seen on YouTube.)
“We had a great four- or five-year run, and David was and is such a good fiddle player,” Pattie says. “But this was before David really started exhibiting signs of what would later prove to be declining mental health.”
Being the son of a prominent civil rights figureunder his direction, and despite constant death threats, Pete McKnight’s Charlotte Observer was a progressive voice on race relations and urban renewal during the seventiesmade an impression on young David. In 1978, he left his post at the Fayetteville paper to run for Senate against incumbent Jesse Helms. He lost in a crowded Democratic primary and garnered only about nine thousand votes. Still, friends say, his campaign was “classic David.” No extensive wardrobe. No prepared talking points. No car. Just a man, his fiddle, and his brain.
“He walked across the horizontal length of North Carolina as part of his campaignand, of course, met many people along the way,” Wilson says.
McKnight found inspiration in these people, Pattie addsand, in them, the way to make his mark on the world. But this optimism was dashed on election night. Pattie remembers sitting in a hotel room with her friend, watching as the returns came in. McKnight was thoroughly disappointed.
He went downhill after that. Perhaps it was his rejection at the polls that sent him into decline. Or maybe it was a series of hardships he faced: his parents’ divorce when he was in his early twenties, his father’s death in 1986, the end of a romantic relationship. Or maybe it was all of these things, or none of them. Maybe it was just the inevitable result of his biology.
When the music poured off his instrument, he was at peace. When the strings were still, however, he was withdrawn and embarrassed at his lack of success; he lamented never having married.
McKnight recognized that he was off-kilter, Carson says. “But he refused treatment. He refused to take his medicine. I think it was because he thought it would interfere with his ability to play.”
Instead, he chose a life on the streets, a life of music and freedom and creation to shield him from the torment of a breaking mind.
He never asked for money. He never had ill words for passersby. Business owners weren’t discouraged by his presence outside their storefronts. With every song, with every half-smile and request granted, his legend grew.
Rumor turned into myth. Perhaps, those of us who encountered him hypothesized, he was a Duke professor conducting a social experiment on homelessness. Or maybe he’d had his heart broken and stood there on Ninth Street, on the very spot where she’d left him, to play until his songs drew her back to him. Regardless, we knew one thing: he belonged in a grand concert hall, not on a sidewalk.
But we were grateful that he didn’t leave. He was our musician, providing the soundtrack for epic breakups, the conclusion of an unforgettable meal, the long walk to Kenan Stadium on game day.
Those who’d known him before, however, knew what was unfolding, and it scared them. How would he make it through cold, lonely nights? What if he were robbed or beaten or killed? He would go for days, weekssometimes yearswithout contacting some family members.
“Driving down Ninth Street, I would always just keep my eyes peeled for him, and a lot of times I would see him at the bus station,” Pattie says. “I’d stop and give him a ride. If you needed to find David, you’d find him down there. But through the years, we would talk about [him] and express a lot of worry about what was going on with him. We’d try to sit down and talk to him, but we just weren’t sure how to help him.”
“He’s stubborn and self-reliant, and, like any stubborn, self-reliant person, he doesn’t always accept even the best-intentioned advice,” Wilson adds. “He resisted help. We all tried to provide it and to encourage him to seek help beyond the help we laypeople could provide. But to my knowledge, he never did that.”
And so McKnight remained on those streets, fiddle in hand.
“It didn’t matter where he was or what he was doing, he was always positive and looking forward,” King says. “We’d say, ‘What are you going to do next?’ I kept thinking, ‘Jesus, David are you gonna be OK?’ But he was a true musician. It was all about the music. And you know, [a friend of McKnight’s] once said, ‘David has built a musical village,’ and he has. So by conventional standards, yes, David was homeless. But really, David always had that musical village, and the world was his home.”
On Sunday night, that village packed Durham’s Blue Note Grill; hundreds converged on one of McKnight’s favorite venues to pay tribute to their ailing friend. He was supposed to be there, one last hurrah, but his health wouldn’t permit it; according to his sister, he was essentially in a coma. But the show went on, live-streamed into his hospice room so that, even in his condition, he could bathe in the warmth of his friends’ affection. He would have wanted it that way.
About an hour into the show, after the string quartet and the Scandinavian folk group, a friend of McKnight’s announced from the stage that they’d be passing a bucket around, church-style. The money would go toward a statue of McKnight, violin in hand, to be erected on Ninth Street.
The bucket was full long before it made its way around the hall.
If I didn’t know this room inside Durham’s PruittHealth facility was reserved for McKnight, I wouldn’t recognize him. His once-shoulder-length hair has been cut short and is mostly gray. He isn’t wearing his glasses. The half-tucked button-down and khaki pants have been replaced by an oversize T-shirt and pajama pants.
It’s Thursday afternoon, three days before the event at Blue Note. (An hour after I left, his sister later told me, he took a turn for the worse.) He’s sitting in a wheelchair, his fiddle stashed behind the open bathroom door. He speaks in a mumble, a hodgepodge of sounds that only resemble actual words. The walls are bare, save for a picture of a little girl playing the violin at the Durham Farmers’ Market thumbtacked to a corkboard. Nobody seems to know who the girl is or who hung the image.
“He’s starting to die now,” Carson says, pausing to collect herself. “It’s almost time.”
King tries to trigger a burst of energy in his friend. “He played with, it seems like, everybody. He was in all sorts of groups and played just about everywhere. Right, David?” he says. McKnight tilts his head back and closes his eyes, nodding off with his mouth open.
“It’s very sad to see David decline,” King tells me. “We’ll miss the fiddle playerand the friend.”
As King continues, when he talks about the songwriting, about how his friend was always composing, something happens. McKnight rights his head and starts tapping his swollen feet. His brain might be losing its battle with cancer, but the sounds won’t leave him.
“We’ll hang on,” King says. “We’ll have memories that we’ll revisit. We’ll keep him alive in our own songs and the songs we did with him. We’ll continue to celebrate.”
A half-smile creeps out of the right side of McKnight’s mouth. He nods his head and starts to speak.
“I wasn’t much today,” he tells me. “But tomorrow, I’ll be back on track.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “One more song for the road.”