As published in T&N157 Aug 23
Fred Smith has been extremely busy touring the nation promoting his new album and a new book.
His new album, “Look’, debuted at the National Folk Festival in Canberra over easter, ahead of tour dates that started in June.
Fred describes the recording as “a collection of songs that are not about Afghanistan.
“With contributions from luminaries including Mal Webb, Stephen Taberner and Liz Frencham, it’s very much an album by the Australian folk scene.
“It embodies the best elements of folk song tradition: humour, narrative, melody, feeling and deftly expressed politics.”
Track one is a tongue in cheek survey of Fred’s own career in folk music.
Other songs are wry odes to the artist’s heroes: Leonard Cohen, Helen Garner and the late Brisbane lawyer-folksinger, John Thompson.
Mortality and introspection weave through and are masterfully handled.
Smith toys with a range of timings and feels, from waltz to rhumba to bluegrass, but there are a couple of gentle ballads, “Come and Say Goodnight”, “Corners of My Mind”.
Their intimacy reminds us why every generation rediscovers folk music.
The recording offers a warm blend of mirth and meaning and would fit well in your kitchen.
There’s a squiggly line in the absurd running through the recording, absurdity being the only sensible response to being human, and that’s the bottom line with this recording, it’s a good one for humans.
As if that’s not enough, Fred has also written a book to be released in August.
Fred Smith, Sparrows of Kabul, (Puncher and Wattmann) 288pp, $32.95
As the second anniversary of the collapse of Kabul approached, book publishers, Puncher and Wattmann, were delighted to announce the publication of ‘The Sparrows of Kabul’.
This fast-paced memoir is a personal account of Fred Smith’s experiences working on the evacuation of Kabul in the heady days following the collapse of the Afghan republic on August 15, 2021.
On return to Australia from Kabul, Smith wrote a 90,000 word first draft of this memoir in a sleepless two-week binge while COVID quarantining in an Adelaide hotel.
Two weeks in the writing, two years in the editing, the book sizzles with the rawness of immediate experience while benefiting from the structure of a story well told.
“I’d never seen such absolute desperation as I saw in the eyes of the people outside the gates of the airport” says Smith.
“Australians followed our 20-year involvement in Afghanistan out of the corners of their eyes, and watched on TV as the whole thing collapsed.
“Offering an accessible account of it all has been my project.”
‘The Sparrows of Kabul’ is vivid reportage from someone who was there.
A dramatic, poignant, funny, sad and above all, human account of Australia’s evacuation mission which ultimately managed to extract 4,100 vulnerable people from the clutches of the Taliban.
We are left admiring the courage and tenacity of so many Afghan men, women and children who, in a last-ditch dash for freedom, braved the human cattle yards outside the gates of Kabul Airport, as well as the public servants and soldiers who helped them.
‘The Sparrows of Kabul’ is the culmination of a remarkably sustained piece of storytelling by a writer regarded by many as a national treasure and the poet of Australia’s Afghanistan experience.
The lyrics to Fred’s song ‘Sapper’s Lullaby’ are engraved in marble at the Australian plot in the centuries old British War Cemetery in Kabul.
It is being published in tandem with the release of the companion album of the same name featuring songs written by Fred after the release of ‘Dust of Uruzgan’ drawing on his experiences in Afghanistan and reflections on the withdrawal and evacuation.
Hugh Rimington said about the book:”In Fred Smith’s hands, this vivid account of the evacuation of Kabul is a rare bird; viscerally honest, packed with self-doubt, suffering and grace.
“Not just the facts but the feelings as the mission saved many but failed others.
Allan Gyngell, AO, also said: “…perfectly captures the urgency of contemporary events…combining lightness of tone with seriousness of content and purpose…it works beautifully”.
Fred is the unusual combination of a diplomat and a songwriter.
He was the first Australian diplomat to be sent to work alongside our troops in Uruzgan province in 2009 and the last to leave in 2013.
In 2011, Fred released the album ‘Dust of Uruzgan’, which received rave reviews and comparisons with the great Australian balladeers, Eric Bogle, John Schumann, and Don Walker.
In 2016, Allen and Unwin published ‘The Dust of Uruzgan’, Smith’s memoir of his experiences in the province.
Smith returned to Afghanistan in March 2021 to work at the Embassy in Kabul as front of house for Australia’s development and humanitarian program.
He ended up working from Kabul airport as part of the Australian team seeking to get former Australian government staff and thousands of others in through the human logjams at the airport’s gates and out of Afghanistan.
Since returning, he has continued to tour his Afghanistan songs extensively around Australia, often raising money for charities close to his heart.
The royalties from sales of the book, ‘The Sparrows of Kabul’, will be donated to Soldier On, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping Australian Defence Force personnel and their families, and the Asadi Zan Foundation which has been helping Afghan women’s rights defenders since the fall of Kabul.
Fred received the Australian Folk Music Awards Artist of the Year – solo in 2022 and in 2021 he was awarded the ACT Chief Minister’s Rotary Peace Prize.
In 2023, he also received the Alistair Hulett Songs for Social Justice Award and he is the only artist to win two National Folk Recording Awards (NFSA), for Bagarap Empires (2002) and Urban Sea Shanties (2009)
In 2008, Sydney Morning Herald critic, Bruce Elder, wrote: “It is about time Australia caught up with Fred Smith.
“This remarkable singer-songwriter, who at various times reveals influences that range from Paul Kelly via Lou Reed to Loudon Wainwright III to Leonard Cohen, keeps releasing amazingly accomplished albums.
“Fred Smith has been a favourite on the Australian festival circuit for years, much loved for his gentle wit, gift for story and melody, and sublime collaborations with Liz Frencham and The Spooky Men’s Chorale.
“Now the rest of Australia is catching up with Fred Smith.
“He was the subject of a recent ABC Australian Story feature about his work in Afghanistan and on peace keeping operations in the war-torn islands of the South Pacific.
“Fred’s book, ‘The Dust of Uruzgan’, was published by Allen and Unwin in 2016, and his 2020 album ‘Domestic’ earned rave reviews.”
Bruce Elder also said on a separate occasion: “Fred Smith is simply the best folk/country musician working in this country…beyond writing some of the finest songs about Australians at war (Dust of Uruzgan), he’s created a repertoire that is wry, literate, witty, powerfully emotional and insightful.”
This was supported by Warwick McFadyen, from the Sunday Age who said:
“Fred Smith is one of this country’s most literate, humorous, intelligent and empathic songwriters”, while Arne Fealing, Canberra Times said: “Grace, gentility, and an art that is purely his own.
“No one does it like him.”
Concerts raise funds for Afghan charities
Published in T&N150 August 2022
To mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of Kabul, Fred Smith and band have been touring his new show, ‘Sparrows of Kabul’, in a series of concerts in August and September to raise funds for Afghan charities.
An extraordinary song cycle, ‘Sparrows of Kabul’ has been described as a “a beautiful retelling of Australia’s Afghanistan experience…”, “utterly beguiling” and “a must see” by critics.
Smith has also released a single called “Gates of KIA” which he wrote after returning home from working on the evacuation of Kabul International Airport in August 2021.
Fred Smith is seen by many as the unofficial storyteller of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan.
The lyrics to his song ‘Sapper’s Lullaby’ are engraved in marble at the Australian plot at the centuries old British War Cemetery in Kabul.
He was the first Australian diplomat to be sent to work alongside Australian soldiers in Uruzgan Province in 2009 and a last to leave in 2013.
While there he wrote songs and put on regular concerts playing with bands comprising Australian, US and Dutch soldiers as well as Afghan interpreters.
Returning to Australia, he released these songs on the album ‘Dust of Uruzgan’.
The CD received rave reviews and earned him comparisons to the great Australian balladeers Eric Bogle, Don Walker, and John Schumann.
The title track was covered by Lee Kernaghan on his top selling ‘Spirit of the Anzacs’ album.
Smith also wrote a book called ‘The Dust of Uruzgan’ described by Channel 10 Political Editor, Hugh Riminton, as “as convincing a picture as we will ever have of the tragedy, hope, oddness and courage of Australia’s Uruzgan enterprise…an astonishingly vibrant piece of reportage from the heart of our longest war.”
In 2020, Smith went back to Afghanistan to work in the Australian Embassy in Kabul.
After Kabul fell under Taliban control, he worked from Kabul International Airport (KIA) and Al Minhad Airbase on Australia’s mission to evacuate passport and visa holders.
His experiences at the human logjams at the gates of the airport are expressed in his new single, ‘Gates of KIA’.
“Seeing the desperation with my own eyes struck me to the core”, said Smith.
Since returning, Fred blended his stories and songs from the evacuation into the ‘Dust of Uruzgan’ stage show which he toured to 80 theatres between 2014-18.
Called ‘Sparrows of Kabul’, the new show offers a vivid personal account of Australia’s 20 year involvement in Afghanistan, culminating in the fall of Kabul and the evacuation.
“The perception is that our evacuation mission was a “monumental stuff-up”, but in fact the Australian team managed to get 4,100 people out, most of whom are now living in Australia.
“Their girls and boys are going to school and having swimming lessons.
“We’ve changed people’s lives”, said Smith.
“Their’s is a story worth telling”.