What Else Matters? Friendship and David McKnight

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Part Two

In Part One (which you can read here), I wrote about my friendship with David McKnight, beginning in the mid-60’s with high school, where he was voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” until the mid 90’s when I lost track of him.  I eventually heard from friends that he was living in the Triangle, back and forth between Raleigh and Chapel Hill and Durham, homeless. And stories came back to me that David’s was indeed experiencing mental health challenges.  He played his violin as beautifully as ever, but now on the streets, as seen in Bill Pope’s photo above of David  playing on 9th Street, Durham, NC, about 2008.

In this second post, I want to continue to examine the nature of friendship, by extending the story to the middle of later years of David’s life, and by expanding the circle of his friendships.  This is going to take me more space and time than I anticipated, so there will be one more post after this one.

A Quick Review

Aristotle confirms the deep value we place on friendship when he writes that no one would want to live without friends, no matter what other goods we have.  He writes that friendship is love for each other, “reciprocated goodwill.”[1] Since we love people for different kinds of reasons, we have three different kinds of friendship, based on what is useful or pleasing or good.[2] The first two by themselves are incomplete forms of friendship, while the friendship based on what is good is the basis for a complete friendship, which does include the first two types, also.

“Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.”[3]  What we love in such relationships is what is good for ourselves.  We love the usefulness of the friend; we do not love the person for who he is.  It’s the mutuality of this usefulness that makes it friendship.

David:  Music and Friendship

Through his musical genius, David was highly useful to his friends.  (That musical ability also was a way in which he made new friends.)  He was useful to the musician friends he joined to create groups, adding a richness and variety and creativity that both broadened and deepened their music and appeal.  And his music was also pleasing to his band members and to friends who listened to the music, either live or recorded.    Watch and listen to David’s violin playing with the group “Triangle” in the 1979 video clip below (especially at the end of the clip, but listen throughout) and see if you agree with me that it is both pleasing to you and useful to the band. [If video does not open for you in this post, you can watch at the link below.]

“Wasting My Time,” by the group Triangle (David McKnight on violin, Pattie Le Sueur, and Jack Le Sueur), a clip from the 1979 video; full song, (composed by Jack Le Sueur) is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTSOP5rcB2g ]

For me this song is “pleasing” in a very deep sense, deeply moving.  I can’t imagine it being without Jack’s writing and singing, without Pattie’s beautiful and amazing voice, and without David’s haunting violin.  The words are haunting as well, making me think about whether I am “wasting my time,” which is a very useful thing to think about. I will wager that David did not think he was wasting his time as he played it, but instead found himself totally immersed in the song as he chose the path of being a musician.  And the words in this 1979 song eerily address the future life of David:

“Somebody tell me, the price I must pay,
  In love and in money, to make my own way.”

David played with Pattie and Jack Le Sueur beginning about 1975.  “We had a great four- or five-year run, and David was such a good fiddle player,” Pattie says in the Indy story about David.  “But this was before David really started exhibiting signs of what would later prove to be declining mental health.”[4]

The group Cleaver Smith & Swenson also found David’s musical ability beneficial to them.  As the group Facebook page states, “David McKnight, an experienced violinist and fiddle player, joined the group in 1984 during a break between sets at a club in Durham, NC. After literally just passing by on the street, the music drew him in and he asked if he could sit on the next set. That was all it took. ‘Everything just clicked.’ David’s many original songs and upbeat instrumentals, which showcase his versatile fiddle and guitar playing, added yet another facet to the band’s sound and ‘down home’ persona.”[5]

Band member Robert Smith writes, “We were taking a break on the sidewalk and David walked by and asked to join us.  We went back inside and played a song I had recently written.  David played an amazing violin solo that knocked everyone out.  From then on, David played with us.  He wrote many songs, instrumental and with vocals that we played.”[6] 

A song written by David in 1986, “I’m Back in Texas Again,” with David as lead vocal, guitar, violin, and piano, captures for me not only one type of his music, but David himself:

From the album “Changin’ My Mind,” by Cleaver Smith Swenson & McKnight, You Tube.  David McKnight, Bill Cleaver (Guitar, Harmonies), Joe Swenson (Bass, Harmonies), Robert Smith (Harmonies), David Spencer (Guitart), Bill Erchul (Pedal Steel Guitar), Tim Rae (Percussion).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h61BVwdNlVQ&list=PLIpkbtRUqjri_JOnjjMIFppudnQeIpJeC

David:  Genial, Funny, Creative, Knowledgeable

It wasn’t just David’s musical ability that was pleasing to people when he was on playing on the street.  Alan Wolf, who himself had experience in Europe playing as a street musician, commented that David as a street musician had some amazing “hooks” to draw in the audience:

A clip from “Memories ‘of David McKnight on Ninth St., Durham ,and ‘Mecklenburg Waltz,’ ” by William Erwin, CelebrationVideos.com”  https://vimeo.com/199855940

I found David to be an astoundingly genial, funny, creative and knowledgeable person.  He was unique.  About 2014, when I had not seen David for several years, we emailed to set up a day and time to have lunch at Dain’s, on 9th Street in Durham.  David let me know he was inviting Bill Yaeger, a longtime Durham friend.  Bill and I got there first, and we had a few minutes to chat.  Bill told about both his friendship with David and also the challenges David presented.  I saw David coming in the front door, walking slowly with a folding stool he carried so he could sit down and rest whenever necessary.  His hair had become grayer, and he was heavier than I last saw him.  But when he saw me he broke into that familiar inviting smile, and he came over and gave me a big hug.

We sat back down in the booth, where a couple of David’s other friends had joined us, and I asked if everyone was ready to order.  “I’m not that hungry,” David said, “so I’m not going to order anything.”  I replied that since I was honored to be seeing David at Dain’s for the first time, I was going to buy.  “Well, in that case,” he said, “I think I will get something.”  And he polished off a hearty meal, joining me and the others in having a beer.

As we all sat and talked, David’s personal gifts were vivid, refreshing my memory.  He listened to what others had to say, responded well, and worked in several good jokes.  I believe that one person at our table was German, and David at point switched seamlessly into fluent German. Then as the conversation went on, something prompted David to start talking about his trips to various towns in the United States named Charlotte, the same as our hometown.  As he talked about Charlotte, Michigan, and his visit there, he began to rattle off facts about that town, its history, its old courthouse that had been turned into a museum, and conversations he’d had with residents.  As he was going on, Bill Yaeger caught my eye, and smiled, and nodded as if to say, “he’s amazing, and he’s not just making this up.”  Sure enough, when I got back to Charlotte, I googled the other Charlotte and found David was right on target.

So it’s clear that in many ways David had many friends in the types of friendship based on his benefiting and pleasing others.  And they clearly were beneficial and pleasing to him, too.  The groups provided a way to earn some money, get food and drink, and to enjoy comradeship with good folks.  And as I’ll write in the next post, they were a refuge for David.  But were they complete friendships, in Aristotle’s sense?

Mental Illness and Complete Friendship

Unlike friendship based on utility or pleasure, Aristotle writes, in a complete friendship we “wish good things to [our] friends for the friends’ own sakebecause of themselves.”[7]  In a complete friendship, our friend feels the same way toward us. And we are also “both unconditionally good and beneficial to each other.”[8]

What does it mean that in a complete friendship we are “both unconditionally good and beneficial to each other”? Sometimes it’s helpful to carve out the boundaries of a concept by showing what is on the other side, what does not fit within the concept.  For example, if we are friends and you ask me to procure heroin for you, and I do so because I want you to have what you want, procuring the heroin is not what is good or beneficial for you in the long term, for either your physical health or your developing self-control, so that is not a complete friendship. A complete friendship is based on what is good.  Likewise, if I cannot control my anger and periodically erupt and hit you, again that doesn’t fit under complete friendship, and I lack an appropriate use of anger.  If I hit you periodically, certainly if I do so for no reason, I’m not doing something for your good.  Or, to take it one step further, we could not be complete friends with an evil person.   What, I ask you, would it look like to be complete friends with Hitler?

In a complete friendship, for Aristotle, each friend is alike in excellence (virtue) and “each alike wishes good things to the other insofar as he is good, and each is intrinsically good.”[9]  As one commentator writes about Aristotle, the friends in a complete friendship are “fully good and virtuous people.”[10]

It was difficult for people to be complete friends (in Aristotle’s sense) with David, due in large part to his mental challenges. When David and I were friends in high school, I knew he was eccentric.  As time when on, certainly by the time he was homeless, it became clear he was dealing with serious challenges.  While it’s not clear whether he was diagnosed as such, several people who knew him think he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.  Regardless of a formal diagnosis, his behavior at times made him very difficult for his friends and family.  David’s sister Carson says, “He refused treatment. He refused to take his medicine. I think it was because he thought it would interfere with his ability to play.”[11]

The paranoia showed up in various ways.  One of the more persistent ones was that some conspirators – the Democratic party, or perhaps the Kennedys – had surreptitiously altered the vote count in that 1978 Democratic Senate primary in which David finished 5th of 8 candidates after walking all the way across the state.  A friend says, “He thought ‘The West Wing’ stole his song as their theme song.  He did have that fixation with numbers and history and even baseball and would link them together into some theme or conspiracy.  He would see photos in the newspaper and think they all reminded him of friends.  He saw words from songs I had written in newspapers and thought that meant something.”

I lived in Charlotte, and David in the Triangle area, so I was not dealing with him on a day to day basis like his friends and co-musicians, but I could sometimes see the paranoia and unevenness in his letters and emails.  One 2007 email was delightful, with the same corny and funny punning he did in high school, responding to my inquiry about ordering a CD he and Bruce Emery had produced:  “I Kant imagine doing otherwise.” The next email, one of “McKnight’s Essays,” as he titled his more formal emails which he often sent both to friends and to newspapers, never mentioned David specifically, but it clearly was about how he was being treated unfairly and why he could not find a job in journalism. “Now we hear that the Democratic Party in North Carolina and nationally  has worked out a scheme by which former working members of the press can be kept underemployed or unemployed while being goaded, prodded or otherwise subjected to partisan political pressure to devote all their literary, journalistic or artistic energies toward the promotion of only one of the two political parties in this country, and I am sure you can guess which one!”[12]

Another email focused on a “technological stranglehold” by powerful organizations,  and then moved on to argue that Kinko’s was conspiring against him and the smaller colleges.  The reason?  Because he had tried to send an email at two different computers at a Kinko’s about a Davidson College croquet match, and the email did not go through either time!

All of us who knew David have our own stories, sometimes converging, sometimes diverging.  Carson remembers “not knowing which David you were going to get.”  One musician friend says that he got the “good David” 95% of the time and that he showed up on time for every gig except once or twice when the bus carrying David was running behind.  Another says that at first David “mostly showed up on time.  Then, it became hit or miss.  We couldn’t count on him.  We had to have sets with and without David made up ahead of time.”

And living on the streets as he did, David and his clothes were sometimes dirty and smelly.

So, David is a long way from being one party in Aristotle’s ideal of a complete friendship, in which each person is perfectly excellent and virtuous. David didn’t always keep his commitments, he could get angry irrationally (such as at Kinko’s), and perhaps didn’t have sufficient pride in his appearance and cleanliness (easy to say from someone not homeless). But perhaps the problem also lies in Aristotle’s definition of a complete friendship.  One of the strengths of Aristotle’s approach to philosophy is that he bases his ideas on a process of observation and then thinking about the best way to describe and evaluate those observations.  That’s how he came up with the idea of the three types of friendship.  And we know and experience all three:  friendships which are based primarily on mutual usefulness, or mutual pleasure, or those much rarer ones which are complete friendships. 

However, in asking for perfect virtue/excellence for those in a complete friendship, Aristotle has gone beyond what observation shows, and he has set too high a standard.  I don’t know any perfect people, and I know for sure I am not one. 

Aristotle is right, I think, that the friends in a complete friendship must have some key virtues.  Who could be complete friends with a truly evil person?  If a person doesn’t show any loyalty to me, or at key times does not show loyalty, how could that person be my friend? And if a person breaks too many promises to me, I will no longer consider that person a complete friend.  There’s no magic number about how many broken promises a friend can make, but we can make reasoned judgments about such situations.

Next time I will try to capture some of the love and joy David’s friends found in him, as well as a sense of the depth and reality of David’s friendships in the next and final (I’m pretty sure) post on David.

In the meantime, keep with you the image of David singing this brief song he wrote, “The Transit Referendum Ditty.”

[If video does not open for you in this post, you can watch at the link below.]

Vote for the Transit Referendum Ditty – David McKnight
Posted by Dan Jewell on YouTube, Nov 8, 2011

Next time:  David’s friendships and David’s last years


[1] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 2, translated and notes by C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2014).

[2] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 2, Reeve.

[3] Book 8, chapter 3, W.D. Ross translation (The Internet Classics        Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html )

[4] Ken Fine, “A Requiem for David McKnight: Prodigy, Journalist, Politician, Homeless Street Musician,” in Indy Week (online version),  Jan. 18, 2017, , http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/a-requiem-for-david-mcknight-prodigy-journalist-politician-homeless-street-musician/Content?oid=5100256&showFullText=true

[5] https://www.facebook.com/pg/CSSMusic/about/?ref=page_internal accessed August 13, 2018.

[6] Robert Smith email to Norris Frederick, August 14, 2018.

[7] Book 8, chapter 3, Reeve, emphasis added.

[8] Book 8, chapter 3, Reeve.

[9] Book 8, chapter 3? (p.139), Reeve.

[10] Reeve note to Nichomachean Ethics, p. 315.

[11] Fine, Indy Week.

[12] July 16, 2007, email, “McKnight’s Essays”

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Ike Casey
Ike Casey
4 years ago

What a great way to discover Aristotle’s definition of friendship. David was a trip and I am sure he cherished his friendship with you, Norris. I get engrossed in the story and then you bring me back to the meaning of friendship.

David was a fine musician. I remember when he challenged Bobby Ennis for Concert Master of the Garinger High School Orchestra. We were all enthralled with his ability on the violin, but in the end Bobby remained the Concert Master. David was not quite good enough. Wonder if part of his mental challenge was being good enough. Are any of us ever good enough?

The freedom that David had to play his music and experience life are something I find interesting. He might not have been a complete friend in the Aristotle definition, but he was free and he lived life his own unique way.

Can’t wait for the next installment. Glad I am your friend

Carson Sarvis
Carson Sarvis
4 years ago

When David was in the sixth grade, he was riding his bicycle to Midwood School and was run over by a car. The fact that his violin in its case was on top of David, and just beneath the underside of the car, saved his life. How prophetic and metaphorical that David’s violin continued to literally save his life through to the end, as it was always “the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.” Again and again, it provided his unique way to reach out to people and draw them into his inner circle – and nobody was ever not in David’s inner circle. There was no outer circle when it came to David. Whenever I hear his music, to this day, it brings me to tears. I still can’t listen to it without dissolving. After he died, I literally lost my voice and had to go to speech therapy. He is greatly missed. Being David’s sister was a real adventure. Thanks you, Norris, for sharing the journey.

Zachary White
4 years ago

Thanks for part 2 of a 3-part series on friendship. Since I’ve always wanted to be a student in one of your classes, your ongoing blogs give me great insight into what I already knew and have heard from countless students. You are an incredible teacher and translator of ideas. In talking about your friendship with David, you are also teaching us about what it means to be engaged in a friendship. You begin with Aristotle, but take us to the limits of his definitions of friendship, in attempting to reconcile what happens when “complete friendship” may not be possible. I’m looking forward to part 3!

Scott Killgore
Scott Killgore
4 years ago

Aristotle sets the bar very high – impossibly so – when it comes to “complete friendships,” and yet I was reminded this past weekend of how “complete” friendships can be even when the people are not perfect.
I spent time with a life-long friend, also named David, who lives in another part of the state and who I rarely see because of the miles. He was back home for his mother’s funeral. She died at age 99 – a long life that was well lived and ended peacefully. A good part of our conversation was about his experience of holding his mother’s hand as she took her last breaths. “Conversation” may not seem like the right word because during that part of our visit, he talked and I listened. But, since “conversation” involves both, I guess that is a good word for it after all.
Like David McKnight, my friend David is an artist – a potter. He is also a paramedic and a teacher of paramedics. Most of all, he is a trusted, life-long friend and there is a strong bond between us. We can be apart for a few years and then when we get back together, it is like we have never been apart. We visit about experiences and dreams and trials and – well – life. But not just life on the surface. Our conversations go much deeper than that, and they can go deeper because of the level of trust between us. And care.
As I reflect on this past weekend, I’m pretty sure that my life would not be complete without David’s friendship. And that, to me, is a good description of “complete friendship.”


[…] By Dr. Norris Frederick Third and Final Part (part one is here and part two here) […]

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