Canada 1974: Bruce Cockburn’s “All The Diamonds”

The earliest “church experience” I remember didn’t actually happen in a church building. Holy Guardian Angels Catholic Church, which served L’Ardoise and the surrounding communities, had burned down in 1974. So my earliest memories of Catholic Mass are rooted in the parish hall across the road, which hosted services in L’Ardoise until a new house of worship opened in 1976.

Little did I realize, as my two-year-old self tried to get comfortable on the orange chairs that greeted me every Sunday morning, that this strange, new-to-me building would someday host my own wedding reception. I also had no idea that a Canadian folk singer who would become a lifelong favourite of my future wife had just released a song that would symbolize his own relationship with Jesus Christ for decades afterwards.

His name was Bruce Cockburn, and the song was “All The Diamonds.”

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According to his 2014 memoir Rumours of Glory, Cockburn was raised in what he describes as “a secular household” but attended Ottawa’s Southminster United Church as a child. However, little Bruce had roughly the same attention span that I had in my childhood church experiences. My parents placated me with candy and Sesame Street toys; the Cockburns provided toddler Bruce with paper and crayons to keep him quiet during the Sunday sermons. As a teenager, he and his friends took a peek at the Bible, but only for what Cockburn now describes as “the juicy bits” (such as the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah and the more violent portions of the Book of Judges).

By the time Cockburn, 29, released his fifth album, Salt, Sun and Time, he was more open to living a life in Christ and celebrating that life in song. “All The Diamonds,” one of only two songs from that 1974 album that Cockburn describes as having stood the test of time over the following 43 years, was born during a visit to the Swedish capital of Stockholm with his then-wife, Kitty MacAulay. During that 1973 visit, Cockburn recalls a pivotal encounter with the Son of God:

It wasn’t long before I was begging on my knees, consciously asking Jesus to help me, to fortify my mind and salve my soul, to make me the person He wanted me to be. I prayed like a child, without reserve. Suddenly, it was there, the same presence that I felt during our wedding ceremony, in the room with me, its energy filling the air. I felt my heart forced open. He was there!…A saviour showing up to save me because I’d asked. I made a commitment to Jesus. From that moment I saw myself as a follower of Christ.

And that night, out poured the lyrics which, decades later, ring true for me as an Atlantic Canadian and as a follower of the King who told James and John to leave their fishing nets and become fishers of men:

All the diamonds in this world that mean anything to me/Are conjured up by wind and sunlight, sparkling on the sea

I ran aground in a harbour town, lost the taste for being free/Thank God He sent some gull-chased ship to carry me to sea

Two thousand years and half a world away/Dying trees still grow greener when you pray

Silver scales flash bright and fade in reeds along the shore/Like a pearl in a sea of liquid jade, His ship comes shining/Like a crystal swan in a sky of sun, His ship comes shining

As you can see, the words deal more with abstract images than direct mentions of the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit. But for Cockburn, “All The Diamonds,” written hours after a boat tour with his wife along the edge of the Baltic Sea, represented a spiritual sea change: “From that night on, for almost three decades, I told anyone who asked that I was a Christian.” 

I wouldn’t hear “All The Diamonds” for the first time until 2006, when Cathy introduced it to me early in our relationship. I was struck by the tenderness and sincerity in Cockburn’s voice, the intricacy of his guitar work, and the beautiful picture he painted of Christ’s arrival in the hearts and souls of those who seek Him.

We’ve sung it many times since then – alone, together, and in public – and we even had the chance to hear Cockburn sing it to us during a Cape Breton concert appearance in 2012. (Follow this link to get a taste of that amazing experience. Or try this link for the lovely version recorded on his 1977 live album Circles In The Stream.)

Other artists have covered “All The Diamonds,” and two of my favourite versions are by Nova Scotia natives – specifically, Melanie Doane (on her 2008 album A Thousand Nights) and Raylene Rankin, whose 2011 album All The Diamonds sadly proved to be her last release before cancer claimed her only a year later.

An amazing song with an amazing legacy, celebrating an amazing God. And to think it all began with a fidgety little boy at a United Church in Ottawa.

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3 thoughts on “Canada 1974: Bruce Cockburn’s “All The Diamonds”

  1. Beautiful, Adam! I may be an agnostic, but I fully support your description of the personal importance of this song to so may people regarding belief, awareness, and commitment. By “so may people” I mean of course Cathy and you and Deb and me, and probably the spouses and offspring, and an unknown number of other people, who find a transcendence in such a simple song. You quote facts I didn’t know. But once again, nice writing! 🙂 Thanks.

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    1. I believe his next two albums had the great Lord of the Starfields as the cover title … and his next one of my favourites comparing the marriage feast of the lamb and perhaps communion to a “festival of friends” (a song title) … later he downplayed this Christian imagery/experience as a phase in his spiritually journey towards other religious traditions such as Buddism??

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      1. Both of you should consider reading his autobiography – he is much more complicated a person than his music suggests but it is hard not to follow along on the sidelines cheering each new evolution

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