Anatomy Of A Song – A Cowboy Legend

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.”ghost

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.

vcdThe Ventures – “Ghost Riders In The Sky”

4 thoughts on “Anatomy Of A Song – A Cowboy Legend

  1. Johnny Cash had a very big hit with “(Ghost) Riders In The Sky” in 1979. It hit number 2 on the Billboard country charts.

    I saw Johnny Cash perform live at the Friar Tuck in in Greene County, New York in 1992, and he and the audience had a blast while he was singing this song. It was nutty fun. He encouraged the audience to do sound effects during the guitar breaks! I’ll never forget that!



  2. Thanks for posting that!

    At the show that I was at at the Friar Tuck Inn, he played a much longer version of the song, and he was laughing a lot, because the audience REALLY responded, as it was kind of a “call and response” with the nonsense sounds and stuff! Johnny Cash was looked like he was having a lot more fun at the place where I saw him. What a thrill it was when I yelled the nonsense thing REAL loud, and the JOHNNY CASH, one of my HEROES, smiled right at ME!

    Of course, it was a much more intimate venue than what is shown on the video. I saw the Capitol building in the background, so this must have been taped at some park in Washington D.C.



  3. Glad you liked it. I just finished that new biography of Cash by Robert Hilburn, and it’s a fascinating look at all the ups and downs in his life, but one thing is clear — when he was on his game he was a great entertainer, and fans loved him.


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