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Stanley Davis “Stan” Jones was born in Douglas, Arizona, and grew up on a ranch. When his father died, his mother moved the family to Los Angeles, California. He attended the University of California at Berkeley, competing in rodeos to make money. However, he dropped out in 1934 to join the United States Navy. After his discharge, he worked at many jobs, including as a miner, a fire fighter, and a park ranger. In his free time he wrote songs, and eventually more than 100 were recorded. His most famous, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”, was written in 1948 when he worked for the National Park Service in Death Valley, California. Assigned as technical advisor to the filming of The Walking Hills, he became friends with director John Ford, who opened his way into Hollywood.
Jones wrote almost entirely Western music. He composed songs for several Western movies by Ford and others producers, including The Searchers and Rio Grande. He also played small parts in several westerns.
In 1955 Jones began writing for Disney Studios. He was co-writer of the theme song for the television series Cheyenne, and in 1956 was hired to play Deputy Harry Olson in the syndicated television series Sheriff of Cochise (1956-1958), which starred John Bromfield as law enforcement officer Frank Morgan. After its first season, Sheriff of Cochise was renamed by Desilu Studios owner Desi Arnaz, Sr., as U.S. Marshal. Jones wrote again for John Ford’s Civil War film The Horse Soldiers, in which he made an unaccredited appearance as Ulysses S. Grant. The following year, he returned to working for Disney Studios. One major role for him was in playing the part of Wilson Brown, a Union soldier and locomotive engineer who was a member of the Andrews Raid depicted in Disney’s film The Great Locomotive Chase.
Jones married twice and had several children. He died in Los Angeles in 1963 at the age of 49. He was buried at Julia Page Memorial Park in his hometown, Douglas, Arizona. In 1997, he was posthumously inducted into the Western Music Hall of Fame.
History of the song
“(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend” is a country and cowboy-style song. It was written on June 5, 1948 by Stan Jones. A number of versions were crossover hits on the pop charts in 1949. TheASCAP database lists the song as “Riders in the Sky” (title code: 480028324), but the title has been written as “Ghost Riders”, “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, and “A Cowboy Legend”.
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 said that he had been told the story when he was 12 years old by an old cowboy friend. The story resembles the northern European mythic Wild Hunt.
More than 50 performers have recorded versions of the song. Charting versions were recorded by The Outlaws, Vaughn Monroe (“Riders in the Sky” with orchestra and vocal quartet), by Bing Crosby (with the Ken Darby Singers), Frankie Laine, Burl Ives (two different versions), Marty Robbins, The Ramrods and Johnny Cash. Other recordings were made by Peggy Lee (with the Jud Conlon Singers) and Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Gene Autry sang it in the 1949 movie, Riders in the Sky. Jones himself recorded it for his 1957 album Creakin’ Leather. Children of Bodom, Impaled Nazarene and Die Apokalyptischen Reiter have also made covers.
The melody is based on the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” According to Robby Krieger, it inspired the classic Doors song “Riders on the Storm.”
The song was also the inspiration for the Marvel Comics Western character “Ghost Rider” later renamed Phantom Rider (not to be confused with the later character named “Ghost Rider”).
The chorus lines of this song are and have been since the 1960s a terrace song of the Aston Villa Football Club of England. The words have been modified to include the line “Holte Enders in the Sky“, a reference to the occupants of the vast stand behind the goal at the southern end of the Villa Park stadium.
Ghost Riders in the Sky
An old cowboy went ridin’ 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
Plowin’ through the ragged skies, and up a cloudy draw
Their brands were still on fire, and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the riders comin’ hard, and he heard their mournful cry
Yipie i-oh, yipie i-ay! Ghost herd in the sky
Their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred their shirts all soaked with sweat
They’re ridin’ hard to catch that herd, but they ain’t caught ‘em yet’
‘Cause they’ve got to ride forever on that range up in the sky
On horses snorting fire, as they ride on, hear their cry
Yipie i-oh, yipie i-ay! Ghost riders in the sky
As the riders loped on by him, he heard one call his name
“If you want to save your soul from hell a riding on our range
Then cowboy change your ways today, or with us you will ride
Tryin’ to catch the devil’s herd, across these endless skies”
Yipie i-oh, yipie i-ay! Ghost riders in the sky
Ghost riders in the sky
Ghost riders in the sky
Who has performed the song
- The original version, by Burl Ives, was recorded on February 17, 1949 and released by Columbia Records as catalog number 38445. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on April 22, 1949, lasting 6 weeks and peaking at position #21.
- Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra. Vocalists: Vaughn Monroe and The Moon Men. Their version, the best-selling one, was recorded on March 14, 1949 and released by RCA Victor Records as catalog number 20-3411 (in USA) and by EMI on the His Master’s Voice label as catalog numbers BD 1247, HN 3014, HQ 2071, IM 1425 and GY 878. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on April 15, 1949, lasting 22 weeks and peaking at position #1.
- The Bing Crosby version was recorded on March 22, 1949 and released by Decca Records as catalog number 24618. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on May 6, 1949, lasting 6 weeks and peaking at position #14.
- The Peggy Lee version was recorded on April 18, 1949 and released by Capitol Records as catalog number 57-608. It reached #2 in Billboard’s Most Played By Disc Jockeys listing without appearing in the retail Top 30.
- The Spike Jones version was recorded on May 24, 1949 and released by RCA Victor Records as catalog number 20-3741. Copies of the original release, containing lyrics ridiculing RCA stockholder Vaughn Monroe, are rare. The recording parodies the original Monroe recording, injecting much of Jones’ quintessential humor along the way.
- Another popular early version was recorded by the Sons of the Pioneers.
- This song was then recorded by the Norman Luboff Choir and released in their album, “Songs of the Cowboy” in 1960.
- The Brothers Four recorded a driven, up-tempo version (with edited lyrics and truncated to three stanzas) for their third LP, “B.M.O.C.: Best Music On/Off Campus,” for Columbia Records in 1961.
- A twangy guitar instrumental version by The Ramrods, which featured the spooky ghostly sounds of mooing cattle, broncos cheers, and sound of whips, made the Billboard Top 30 in 1961, as well as the Top 10 in the UK. This was covered by UK bandThe Scorpions (not the German rock band) on the “Parlophone” Label.
- Bob James recording as Bob James Trio included it as the last track on his very first album Bold Conceptions released in 1962. This may be a bonus track on the CD but it is consistent with the adventurous nature of the rest of the album.
- Frankie Laine recorded a version of it on his 1963 album Wanderlust.
- Daniel Amos recorded a Liver version of it on their Miracle Faith Telethon CD.
- Dick Dale recorded a version in the surf style and released it on his second album, King of the Surf Guitar, in 1963. For a time it also accompanied a NASA montage as part of the preshow video on Space Mountain at Disneyland.
- Duane Eddy brought his electrified “twangy guitar” sound along with a sax edition by Jim Horn to a 1996 version on an Curb Album “Ghost Rider.”
- Recorded by Elvis Presley in June 1970 at MGM’s soundstage in Culver City.
- Riders in the Sky recorded this song on their debut album, Three on the Trail, in 1979, and on several of their subsequent albums.
- Johnny Cash made a recording in 1979 which was faithful to the original. He also recorded it live with Willie Nelson for 1998′s VH1 Storytellers. In that recording, Willie Nelson misses the start of the third verse because he forgets the text, and ends up switching the third and fourth verses.
- The rock band Outlaws made a recording on their 1980 album Ghost Riders that left out the last verse. This version has often been mistakenly credited to The Marshall Tucker Band. They also released a live version of the song, recorded in 1982 at the King Biscuit Flower Hour, which appeared on Greatest Hits of The Outlaws… High Tides Forever
- A version by The Shadows reached number 12 in the UK Singles Chart in 1980. This version was a semitone higher than the original.
- Milton Nascimento recorded a version in Portuguese as “Cavaleiros Do Céu” on his 1981 album Caçador de Mim.
- There is also a Sesame Street version called “The Dirtiest Town in The West” with alternated lyrics. It was first aired in 1982.
- Impaled Nazarene recorded a black metal version of the song, which was released on the Sadogoat EP in 1993. Later it was included in the CD version of their bonus album Tol Cormpt Norz Norz Norz.
- The Alberta Celtic rock group Captain Tractor recorded an unusual version for their 1994 album Land. New lyrics describe the frenzy of corruption in a prairie town at the climax of a real estate bubble. Rather than fire-and-brimstone Christian imagery, the warning takes the form of vaguely Zen lamentations—”The winds still blow / The rains still fall / The trees don’t seem to care AT ALL!”
- Ned Sublette included a merengue rendition on his Cowboy Rumba (1999).
- The Blues Brothers performed the song in the movie Blues Brothers 2000. Similar to the “Rawhide” scene in the first movie, the band is mistakenly booked at a bluegrass festival (announced to the crowd as the “Bluegrass Brothers”).
- Dolan Ellis, Arizona’s Official State Balladeer since 1966, included this as the only cover on his CD, “Tall Tales, Lost Trails & Heroes,” released in 2000. He has sung the song throughout the nation and in 20 foreign countries, solo and as a member of the New Christy Minstrels, always telling the folk tale of Stan Jones, the Cochise County cowboy.
- The heavy metal band Die Apokalyptischen Reiter recorded a version that was released on their 2006 single, “Friede Sei Mit Dir”.
- Me First and the Gimme Gimmes covered the song on their 2006 album Love Their Country.
- Deborah Harry, lead singer of Blondie, recorded a trance version of the song which features on the soundtrack to the film Three Businessmen. The song (produced and arranged by Dan Wool and Pray for Rain) is available free on her websitedeborahharry.com.
- The Ventures made a surf rock cover of the song.
- Terry Scott Taylor and Daniel Amos recorded a version in 1990 that appeared on the “Miracle Faith Telethon” compilation album.
- Same year 1990, French guitarist and singer Gill Dougherty recorded a half vocal, half instrumental version on his LP “Live In Bourges”.
- Pedro Vargas recorded a version called “Jinetes en el Cielo” in Spanish.
- Raphael a Spanish singer in the 1970s performed this song, changing the lyrics talking about a cowboy doomed to ride for eternity for breaking a young girl’s heart. The song ends happily when the girl saves him from that horrible destinity by crying and praying for him, then letting a rose fall on his grave.
- During his tour as “Giant Robot”, Buckethead played a dub style version of the song.
- During the credits of the 2007 movie Ghost Rider, a rock cover by the band Spiderbait is played. An instrumental version is also heard at points in the film.
- Concrete Blonde recorded a version for their last album, 2004′s Mojave.
- Los Baby’s, a famous 1960s band from Mexico, made the Spanish version called “Jinetes en el Cielo”, which mean riders in the sky.
- Former REO Speedwagon guitarist Gary Richrath quoted the melody of the song during his unaccompanied guitar solo on the band’s 1977 live album, Live: You Get What You Play For.
- The German “Western Metal” band Dezperadoz (featuring a member of Sodom) covered the song on their 2000 album The Dawn of Dying.
- The Texan band Ghoultown recorded a version of this song on their album Tales from the Dead West
- The Spotnicks, a Swedish instrumental rock band, covered this song and released it on The Spotnicks in London.
- Finnish melodic death metal band Children of Bodom covered this song under the title ‘Ghostriders in the Sky’ and have released it on the special edition of their 2008 album Blooddrunk.
- Adelaide, Australia band The Fabulaires did a cover version on their Apocalypso 12″ E.P. circa 1980.
- Baja Marimba Band recorded this song on the album “Watch Out!” in 1966.
- Christopher Lee recorded a version of this song on the album “Devils, Rogues & Other Villains”, released by Nikolas Schreck in 1998 on his Wolfslair label.
- Art Greenhaw, Grammy Award-Winning guitarist, producer and leader of The Light Crust Doughboys, recorded a world music fusion version of this song on the album “Lone Star Sitar” and released in 2006 on the Greenhaw Records label.
- Judy Collins, featuring the Nashville Rhythm Section and Ghost Riders Chorus, covered Ghost Riders In The Sky on her 2010 album Paradise.
- The Space Lady, Boston/San Francisco career street musician, did a cover of the song performed on a Casiotone MT-40 through a phase shifter, and vocals through a delay unit.
Recordings have also been made by Mary McCaslin, The Tubes (masquerading as “Cowboy Fee & The Heifer’s Dream”), Roy Clark, Marty Robbins, Dean Martin, Boston Pops, Lawrence Welk, R.E.M., Dixie Chicks, Kaleidoscope, (Guy Vanderhoof), and the British gothic rock band Scary Bitches. There is a German language version of the song called “Geisterreiter” which, as early as 1949, was recorded by east German entertainer Rita Paul & her Cornel-Trio. In the same year, a version was released by Gerhard Wendland. More than 20 versions of the German version are known. Most notably by Howard Carpendale and Karel Gott. There is a cover by the surf-punk-electro-band Mikrowelle as well as in 2008 by German TV-entertainer Götz Alsmann feat. Bela B (fromDie Ärzte).