David McKnight, a fiddle-playing journalist who loved politics, storytelling and music, died Tuesday morning in Durham. He was 69.
McKnight, who grew up in Charlotte, died from a brain tumor two days after more than 200 friends and musicians gathered at Durham’s Blue Note Grill for a three-hour musical tribute.
McKnight played several instruments and spoke multiple languages, including Russian. He composed everything from bluegrass to waltzes and wrote essays about North Carolina politics and history. He even ran for office, once walking 1,654 miles across the state from Manteo to Murphy in an unsuccessful bid to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.
In recent years, he was a fixture on Durham’s Ninth Street: the bespectacled man with the wild gray hair bent over his fiddle or mandolin.
“People who didn’t know his name or his life story will remember him as the man with the violin,” Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said of her uncle.
McKnight was the son of former Charlotte Observer editor Pete McKnight. He graduated from Garinger High, where he was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by his senior class.
After graduating from Duke University, he started a career as a journalist. He worked for seven years as a journalist in Greensboro, Durham, Raleigh and Fayetteville before quitting in 1977 to run for the Senate. At the time he was 29, not yet old enough to hold the office he sought.
He wore out six pairs of shoes on his cross-state hike. He carried his fiddle everywhere, promising voters he wouldn’t “fiddle around” in Washington. He finished fifth of eight candidates in the 1978 Democratic primary.
McKnight, who fought mental illness for much of his life, would never again have a steady job. But he had wide-ranging interests and seemingly encyclopedic knowledge.
Meg Whalen, director of communications for UNC Charlotte’s College of Arts and Architecture, said a conversation with her uncle was an unpredictable foray into the worlds of history, sports, politics or culture.
“His mind was constantly seeing connections,” Whalen said. “A conversation with him was often like a kaleidoscope. I always felt like it was an intellectual obstacle course.”
And there was always the music.
Once, Whalen said, a Russian orchestra came to Charlotte. Finding that it needed an extra string player, it recruited McKnight. At a dinner later, a waitress approached the Russians and began to explain the food in slow English.
“Mighty fine, mighty fine,” McKnight replied to the startled waitress.
His music touched many people, including those who didn’t know him.
“McKnight's artistry with the violin and the guitar and the quiet warmth of his personality won the hearts of many in Durham, even if they knew him only as a street musician along Ninth Street or at the edge of the Durham Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings,” The Durham Herald-Sun wrote in a Saturday editorial.
Musician David King told the paper that McKnight could “switch genres on a dime.”
“He could go from Bach to Mozart to Hank Williams to Texas swing,” King said. “It was always a surprise to see what David was going to play next. I’ve never seen a more versatile musician.”
McKnight, diagnosed with the inoperable tumor in November, spent his final days at a Durham nursing home. Friends are considering erecting a memorial, maybe in the form of a bench and violin, on 9th Street near the spot he played.