Singing Across the Divide: Border Songs compilation captures the emotions of border politics

January 23, 2013 |

After his first field trip with his students to the Arizona-Mexico border, lined now with a metal fence ripping across the desert, Robert Neustadt wrote a song. The Northern Arizona University professor took his class on Latino Theater, Film, and the US/Mexico Border to the site of their studies to see it first hand, and when Neustadt sat down with a guitar later, the stories came forward. “I wrote that song because I had to write that song,” he explained. “It just sort of came out of me.” He had met undocumented migrants who had been deported – a sterile word for being split from families they’d built in the U.S., or even families they’d left in Mexico – and dropped off in Nogales with no resources to move or mend the divide. The title of the song is an even more sterile term for this separation: “Voluntary Return.”

The song has now joined 30 other tracks from musicians, poets and storytellers in a new album that tackles the emotion on both sides of the fence. “Border Songs” is available on CD Baby and since October has sold over 800 copies; the proceeds amounting to $16,000 are being donated to No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid organization that provides aid to migrants in the desert and at repatriation centers in northern Mexico.

Neustadt was haunted by what he’d seen across the border: the makeshift camps, the Border Patrol attitudes, the shrines to people who’d died in the heat. He wasn’t the only one. And when his friend and collaborator Chuck Cheesman shared a song he’d also written about the complicated tangle of border politics, the two realized there might be a whole album’s worth of songs like this across the state, maybe even the whole country. “I thought it was such a beautiful idea that I jumped on it and wouldn’t let go until we did it,” Neustadt professed. An album was born.

The sounds of the border songs are as diverse as the people in them. Sweet Honey in the Rock’s strong harmonies lead into the Latino beats of Lilo Gonzalez into the soft dulcet of Amos Lee in the first three tracks. The pieces swing from story and spoken word to ballads, rock, and Spanish-language rap, with appearances from Calexico, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Pete Seeger, Joel Rafael and Sergio Mendoza y La Orkesta. Everywhere in between, locally known songwriters contribute tracks. The artists talk about coyotes and Border Patrol and SB1070 and death and love torn away.

Concerts are popping up around Arizona, and Tucson will see one on January 5th at Southside Presbyterian Church. Among the performers is Glenn Weyant, a sound sculptor whose track on the album blends Margaret Randall reading a poem over Weyant playing the actual border wall itself, with violin bows, sticks and brushes. Perhaps above all, “Border Songs” seeks to create an experience of immigration like Weyant’s sound: tactile, tormented, and immediate.

“Border Songs” is available for purchase at; all of the $20 pricetag benefits No More Deaths.

Border Songs in Concert will be at Southside Presbyterian Church, 317 W. 23rd St., on Sat.,  Jan. 5 at 7pm.  There is a $5 suggested donation, or admission with purchase of a “Border Songs” CD.  For more information, visit or find No More Deaths on Facebook.

Category: MUSIC