When I was first planning out what Mystery Train would sound like, I wanted lots of different genres hooked up together like freight cars. But I didn’t just want to play songs at random, not that that can’t work. I wanted a reason for one tune to follow another. The obvious and unoriginal solution was to put together theme blocks...songs about rain or love or the color blue...and give each set a connector, usually a common composer or musician. Some sets fall together easily. I work on others for days, but most shows kind of end up going where they want.
For the past couple years, I’ve almost always had a show in the planning stages so my brain has become used to looking for connections – and it extends beyond just music. I’ll be working on a set about something and hear a report on NPR that relates to the topic, or whatever book I’m reading will tie in somehow, or a scene in a movie will jump out at me. Songs about sleep have been cropping up in my show lately, and they will again towards the end of next week's show. I’ve got a nice pair figured out - Bob Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” followed by “I’ll Be Rested” by Mavis Staples, a roll call of folks who laid down their tunes during the Civil Rights Era – but the next song is eluding me so far.
Then I'm listening to All Things Considered and I hear book reviewer Marc Acito tell me he sleeps better after reading fiction. Why? “Maybe because the make believe world acts as a transition between the waking life and the stuff of dreams, a way station on a journey into the imagination,” he says. Then, on the same show, I hear about Michael Meyer, a 36-year-old former Peace Corps volunteer who decided to move out of his high rise in Beijing and into a 600-year-old Hutong neighborhood where his room is just 90 square feet and he sleeps on a thin foam mat on top of a plywood bed.
So I’m thinking about how sleep can bring relief and release. It’s a reward. It’s a renewal, for rich and poor. But there's another side. The synapses fire and bring up a scene from a movie. A woman is asked by her husband to sacrifice her music and goes to her mother for advice. “Men and women are different,” the mother explains. “You think that one of us could ask anyone to give up something so important? Of course not, because we know what it’s like to relinquish part of ourselves…to husband, to children. Their lives become our lives. One day we realize we’re only half awake, but it’s too late.”
We think differently when we’re half awake. But dreams aren’t anything to live on either.
So for song number three in the set, I considered Kurt Elling’s “The Waking” but I just played that one a few weeks ago.