March 19

“Riders in the Sky”: A Cowboy Legend

It’s extremely catchy for a song with no consistent title: “Ghost Riders in the Sky”? “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”? “Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)”? Or maybe you prefer just plain “Ghost Riders”, or “Ghostriders”, or half-a-dozen other variations over the years.

"Riders in the Sky": A Cowboy Legend 1

But, however you label it, it’s a song unlike any other. It made its appearance more than seventy years ago, and shortly thereafter versions by Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby and Burl Ives chased Vaughn Monroe up the hit parade, to be followed over the decades by Frankie Laine, Dean Martin, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, the Doors, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, the DNA Vibrators, and the German heavy metal band Die Apokalyptischen Reiter.

But, with all due respect to those fine vocal artists, the song’s melodrama is made for a big-voiced baritone like Vaughn Monroe. On May 14, 1949, he and his orchestra hit Number One on the Billboard chart, and America was gripped by one of the spookiest tales ever to haunt the jukebox.

An old cowpoke went riding out one dark and windy day

Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way

When all at once a mighty herd of red-eyed cows he saw

A-plowin’ through the ragged skies and up a cloudy draw

Yippee-yi-yay, yippee-yi-yo

The ghost herd in the sky…

Inside the song

A ghost herd in the sky? Where did that come from? From a guy called Stan Jones – and it was, as they say on the TV movies, based on a true story. Stan was born in 1914 near Douglas, in southeastern Arizona, and by the age of 12 was working at the D Hill Ranch.

The song tells a folk tale of a cowboy who has a vision of red-eyed, steel-hooved cattle thundering across the sky, being chased by the spirits of damned cowboys. One warns him that if he does not change his ways, he will be doomed to join them, forever “trying to catch the Devil’s herd across these endless skies”. Jones stated he had been told the story when he was 12 years old by an old cowboy friend. Significantly, the story resembles the northern European mythic Wild Hunt.

The melody is based on the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.

Credits to the originals

This is the first recording of this famous song by no other than the writer, Stan Jones. He recorded it in 1948. In February 1949, Burl Ives, famous as a folk singer for years before he became an actor, recorded this.  Vaughn Monroe’s big baritone and orchestra version became a number one hit a month later, but it’s great to listen to Burl sing this much simpler version, just his clear tenor voice and strumming on a single instrument, probably a banjo, possibly a steel stringed guitar.

Original or cover version, nothing sounds better than a countrified rendition. So fellas, keep on track with our featured songs here at Country Daily. We make sure to keep the cowboy spirit ruling in. Yeehaw!


dean martin, Elvis Presley, Ghost Riders in the Sky, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Stan Jones, Vaughn Monroe

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