The subject of today’s Anatomy of a song is a Western classic that has had several different names during its 65 years of life. Mostly it’s been known as “Ghost Riders in the Sky” or “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” but its official ASCAP title omits the ‘Ghost’. On the other hand, it has sometimes been shortened to “Ghost Riders” or occasionally stretched out all the way to “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend.”
It was written in 1948 by Stan Jones, who was working as a park ranger in Death Valley at the time but had grown up in Arizona and spent some time as a cowboy. He even managed to make his own record of it, but the song didn’t gain any real traction until Burl Ives covered it the following year, closely followed by Vaughn Monroe, Peggy Lee and Bing Crosby (accompanied by the Ken Darby Singers, who also backed him on “White Christmas”). Spike Jones even put out a comedic version.
In later years it was recorded by singers like Frankie Laine and ensembles like the Brothers Four and the Norman Luboff Choir, along with instrumentals by the likes of the Ventures, who had a huge hit with the song. Even Elvis eventually got into the act, and of course all the usual country singers did their versions. Finally, it was also the inspiration for the Western singing group known as Riders In The Sky, formed in 1977 and still going strong.