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Title: Ghost Riders in the Sky
Source: steynonline.com
URL Source: https://www.steynonline.com/2058/ghost-riders-in-the-sky
Published: Mar 11, 2018
Author: Stan Jones
Post Date: 2018-03-11 22:55:22 by Gatlin
Keywords: None
Views: 516
Comments: 15

Ghost Riders in the Sky
Steyn's Song of the Week
AC-130 Spectre Gunship Theme Song

Exactly one week ago, at the Academy Awards, Best Actress winner Frances McDormand put the phrase "inclusion rider" into general circulation - and Matthew McWilliams, a first-day Founding Member of The Mark Steyn Club, wrote to propose one of those all-star medleys the Oscars used to do so well:

Perhaps, Inclusion Rider (by Traffic), Inclusion Riders on the Storm (by The Doors), Midnight Inclusion Rider (by the Allman Brothers Band) and Low Inclusion Rider (by War). I'm open to other suggestions.

Fellow Club member Bob Belvedere took up the challenge:

All good choices.

Perhaps, also: CC Inclusion Rider [by Chuck Willis or The Animals] or Ghost Inclusion Riders In The Sky [by Vaughn Monroe].

Well, as always happens when anybody mentions that last song, I find myself singing it non-stop for the next 72 hours - in this case, in its strangely beguiling "Inclusion Riders in the Sky" iteration. 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"? "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.

But, however you label it, it's a song unlike any other. It made its appearance 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 artistes, the song's melodrama is made for a big-voiced baritone like Vaughn Monroe. On May 14th 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...

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. "I'd been sent out to do a chore," he recalled, "so I saddled up my horse and took off. After I'd finished my work, it was beginning to blow up a storm, and, not having my poncho along, I decided to take an old path up over the mountain, which was between me and the ranch house. I was hoping to beat the rain, 'course. Well, right up on top of the ridge, I met an old, old cowpuncher, sort of a weird old fellow."

This was a leathery cuss called Cap Wells, and, without even turning his head to look at young Stan, he said, "Son, look up into the sky and you'll see the red-eyed cows of the devil's herd." And the boy looked up, and, by golly, there they were:

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...

It was, in fact, a meteorological effect: a peculiar cloud formation caused by the collision of hot and cold air currents. The clouds darkened, and lightning flashed, and it really did look like a ghost herd pursued by ghost riders:

A bolt of fear shot through him as he looked up in the sky
For he saw the riders comin' hard and he heard their mournful cry...

And the "bolt of fear" was certainly real. The old cowboy told the 12-year old that if he wasn't careful he'd be joining the ghost riders, accursed to chase steers across the desert sky for all eternity. "I was scared," said Stan. "You never saw a horse or boy get off a mountain so fast in your life."

Jones grew up, left Douglas, worked in the copper mine in Jerome, Arizona, then as a logger in the Pacific Northwest, and eventually joined the National Park Service - which is when the ghost riders rode back into his life. "It was when I was stationed with the park rangers in Death Valley," he remembered. "I happened to look up into the sky. Well, sir, I saw that same kind of a cloud formation as I had way back the other time, and it sort of all came back to me. And I went inside and wrote the song":

An old cowpoke went riding out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way...

"Riders In The Sky" is one of those compositions whose creation we can date precisely: June 5th 1948. It was Stan Jones' 34th birthday, and with the help of his guitar he fleshed out the scene he'd first witnessed on top of the mountain 22 years earlier - the thundering herd of hot-breathed, red-eyed cattle, pursued by the eternally damned cowboys:

Their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred, their shirts all soaked with sweat
They're riding 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 snortin' fire, as they ride on hear their cry:

Yippee-yi-yay, yippee-yi-yo
Ghost Riders In The Sky...

It's a narrative-driven song, and it wouldn't strike many musicologists as the most interesting melody in the world. In fact, it's such a generic country tune that there are all manner of other country songs - Dolly Parton's "Bargain Store", for one - that I start out singing only to morph en route into "Ghost Riders". Still, it's undeniably effective, especially on those ominous low notes at the end of each verse, followed by the "mournful cry" of the ghost riders' yippee-yi-yay. And Stan Jones wrapped it up with the warning he'd been given all those years ago by ol' Cap Wells:

The cowpokes loped on past him and he heard one call his name
If you want to save your soul from hell a-ridin' on our range
Then, cowboy, change your ways today or with us you will ride
A-trying to catch the devil's herd across these endless skies

Yippee-yi-yay, yippee-yi-yo
Ghost Riders In The Sky...

A shame that after all those great rhymes in the first stanzas ("steel"/"feel", "sweat"/"yet"), Jones falls back on two bum pairings like "name"/"range" and "ride"/"skies". Still, not bad for a couple of hours' work.

But so what? Jones was a park ranger. Fat lot of good it does you turning out hit songs in the middle of Death Valley. Stan and his wife Olive lived in a house with no TV, radio, or even telephone, so he wasn't exactly hip to the latest trends in pop music: Just making contact with the rest of the world involved a long dusty pick-up ride.

But sometimes the world comes to you. Hollywood was making a lot of westerns in those days, and no longer on the back lot. So the National Park Service decided it might be useful to have a guy they could refer the movie people to when they came out from Los Angeles to scout for the best locations. No-one knew the lie of the land like Stan Jones, so he wound up with the gig. After a long hot day's filming, there wasn't much for cast and crew to do of an evening, so it was kind of relaxing to sit under the stars round the campfire while Stan sang a few of his songs. And one night, for the boys from the John Ford picture Three Godfathers, the park ranger got out his guitar and sang a weird tale about a "ghost herd in the sky". It surely must have been especially eery under a desert moon with the flames of the fire flickering against the endless dark. When the song was over, the film crew told him he needed to get a publisher in Los Angeles.

So he went to California and pounded pavement and knocked on doors, and Burl Ives liked "Riders In The Sky". And, when Burl's recording session was over, someone in the studio tipped off Vaughn Monroe that there was a helluva song he'd just heard and Vaughn ought to get to it right away. By Stan Jones' 35th birthday - one year to the day after writing the song - he'd had a Number One record (Monroe's) plus three other hit versions, by Ives, Bing Crosby and Peggy Lee, plus a Gene Autry movie called Riders In The Sky, in which the singing cowboy performs the song no less than three times, and an edition of "Your Hit Parade" in which, to Stan's utter delight, Frank Sinatra roared through the song with the gusto of an authentic Hoboken cowpoke. Of these early interpretations, I confess I'm entirely antipathetic to at least one of them. A little Burl Ives goes way too long with me. I'll never forgive him his record of "Swingin' On A Star". Instead of "if that kind of life is what you wish", Burl sings:

But then if that kind of life is what you want
You may grow up to be a fish...

How come nobody noticed that "want" doesn't rhyme with "fish"? So I have no regrets that he got beaten to the punch on "Ghost Riders". As for Peggy Lee, longtime readers know I love her, but "Ghost Riders" is a song that loses a lot of power when a woman sings it. Crosby is fine, although he takes it, as he did most things, in his stride - so that the overall effect is "Hey, there's some zombie cowboys stampeding ghost cows across the sky, but it's no big deal..." Monroe's version deservedly came out on top - at least as far as I'm concerned.

By contrast, Stan Jones never hesitated when asked to name his favorite recording: the Sons of the Pioneers, whose frontman Bob Nolan wrote our Song of the Week #97, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds".

By now, Jones knew guys like Bob Nolan, and John Ford. The cowboy actor George O'Brien introduced Jones to Ford, who liked his songs so much he signed him to write the score for The Wagon Master, with his pals the Sons of the Pioneers handling the vocals. Jones went on to compose for The Searchers and Rio Grande, in which he also appears, as the sergeant who presents the "regimental singers" (the Sons of the Pioneers) to John Wayne. For just over a decade, "Riders In The Sky" gave a park ranger from Death Valley a life he could never have dreamed of - pop hits, major movies, albums, and the TV series "Sheriff of Cochise". He was working on a novel about Queen Nefertiti when he was diagnosed with cancer. He died aged 49 in 1963, and was buried in the town cemetery back in Douglas, in his beloved Arizona.

Stan Jones never heard Duane Eddy's twang's-the-thang guitar version of "Ghost Riders", one of the earliest of the many instrumental versions, from the Ramrods to the Scorpions, from the Swedish rockers the Spotnicks to the Shadows' British hit single of the early Eighties. Jones never heard Dick Dale or the Ventures' surf "Riders". He never heard Elvis sing it, nor Johnny Cash. He never heard Milton Nascimento warble it in Portuguese, or Ned Sublette perform it as a merengue. He never heard the Doors song "Riders Of The Storm", which Robbie Krieger used to say was inspired by "Riders In The Sky". He never heard the band Riders In The Sky, nor saw the movie Ghost Rider, which includes a rock version of the song by Spiderbait. And among all these minor accolades he never saw my own tip of the hat to his great song, which came about in 2011 when Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid complained that mean-spirited Republicans were attempting to cut the federally subsidized cowboy poetry program, and took to the Senate floor to thunder that this town ain't big enough for both him and the Mean-Spirited Kid (John Boehner).

What do you need to write cowboy poetry? Words like "tumbleweed" and "chaps." Also, trochees, spondees and dactyls. Pencil and paper. Total cost: 79 cents. Maybe you and a half-dozen other cowboy poets like to book the back room at the local bar once a month for an evening of cowboy poetry and a few beers. Total cost: couple hundred bucks. Maybe folks get word, and you figure you should get a bigger room and invite the public and charge a three-dollar admission. Try as I might I couldn't figure out what there is for a distant bureaucracy thousands of miles away to subsidize. Once upon a time, the cowboy embodied the rugged individualism of the frontier. In Harry Reid's world, he embodies dependency without end. To "preserve" the "tradition," it is necessary to invert everything the tradition represents: From true grit to federally funded grit. So I decided to try my hand at non-federally-funded cowboy poetry. I'm still waiting for the grant check:

An ol' cowpoke went ridin' out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once he spied a posse from the GOP
A-hangin' from that ol' mesquite his fed'ral subsidee

His pen was still a-fire and he knew how to spell "git"
But an ol' paint can't outride a trillion-dollar deficit
If only Harry Reid can head 'em off at that there pass
'Cuz he hasn't finished paying off creative-writing class

Yippee-yi-yay, yippee-yi-yo
Cow Poets On The Dole
Yippee-yi-yay, yippee-yi-yo
Cow Poets On The Dole...

With apologies to Stan Jones - because any semi-competent wordsmith can parody the universally recognized; the rare skill is creating something that instantly recognizable in the first place. Of course, in some ways "Riders In The Sky" is merely a western variant of the old European myth of the Wilde Jagd - the "wild hunt" in which, on stormy nights, various Norse gods, local kings, legendary warriors, or just a bunch of no-name lost souls ride across the dark clouds lit up by lightning flashes. Likewise, the first Pirates Of The Caribbean would have rung a few bells with Stan Jones. But no one has ever taken the legend and distilled it so perfectly in music - now and for all time:

'Cause they've got to ride forever on that range up in the sky
On horses snortin' fire, as they ride on hear their cry:

Yippee-yi-yay, yippee-yi-yo
Ghost Riders In The Sky...

Stan Jones died too young. No soul in torment cursed to ride the storm-tossed skies, but a man at rest in the town of his birth, whose gravestone bears the words of his song "Resurrectus":

I'll see him in the sunrise
And just as day is done
No more to walk in darkness
For I know now my cares are none.

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#1. To: All (#0) (Edited)

Gatlin  posted on  2018-03-11   22:58:18 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#2. To: All (#1)

Gatlin  posted on  2018-03-11   23:51:19 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#3. To: Gatlin (#0)

I remember the song and period well from when I was much younger.

rlk  posted on  2018-03-12   0:08:47 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#4. To: Gatlin (#0)

Yeah, just watching those videos of our military killing Iraqis in Iraq makes me feel great knowing that my freedoms were kept safe throughout that war.

Pinguinite  posted on  2018-03-12   1:03:55 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#5. To: Gatlin (#0)

They f'd up at 3:36 when they were directed to not attack the mosque.

A K A Stone  posted on  2018-03-12   8:23:10 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#6. To: All (#0)

Vegetarians eat vegetables. Beware of humanitarians!

CZ82  posted on  2018-03-12   18:13:00 ET  (1 image) Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#7. To: All (#6)

Vegetarians eat vegetables. Beware of humanitarians!

CZ82  posted on  2018-03-12   18:13:52 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#8. To: CZ82 (#6)

THAT Outlaws version is THE best version of Ghost Riders; The one I own and listen to.

Liberator  posted on  2018-03-12   20:41:02 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#9. To: Liberator (#8) (Edited)

THAT Outlaws version is THE best version of Ghost Riders; The one I own and listen to.


Do you notice the similarity between them and The Outlaws? Listen closely...

Vegetarians eat vegetables. Beware of humanitarians!

CZ82  posted on  2018-03-13   18:39:36 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#10. To: CZ82 (#9)

Blackhawk. Never heard of them till now. Liked. Really liked. Excellent stuff.

90s Country-Rock? That decade was a great one for contemporary Country. I had traditional R&R friends who switched gears into Country Rock because as we know, regular rock was becoming extinct by the mid-90s.

I didn't listen to enough Outlaws to hear similarities, but I love the harmonies and guitar jingle-jangling and composition of Blackhawk. I can now add them to my List. Thanks, Unc.

Liberator  posted on  2018-03-13   19:25:05 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#11. To: Pinguinite (#4) (Edited)

Yeah, just watching those videos of our military killing Iraqis in Iraq makes me feel great knowing that my freedoms were kept safe throughout that war.

Don't you like Death Porn? /s

Good thing not another Iraqi hijacked a plane into any of the US skyscrapers or Pentagram! (Or wait -- they were Saudi.)

"Winning hearts and minds"....Oy.

Liberator  posted on  2018-03-13   19:30:11 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#12. To: A K A Stone (#5)

"Do not engage the Mosque" (as Muzzies continue to burn down Churches by the hundreds.)

Fake War.

Liberator  posted on  2018-03-13   19:32:26 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#13. To: Liberator (#10)

I didn't listen to enough Outlaws to hear similarities, but I love the harmonies

Henry Paul did lead vocals for both groups, is currently back as a member of The Outlaws...

Vegetarians eat vegetables. Beware of humanitarians!

CZ82  posted on  2018-03-14   20:25:45 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#14. To: CZ82 (#13)

"Henry Paul"? Good to know. All those guys and music from the past need to be preserved or re-discovered. I was surprised that Blackhawk sounded so good (man, is the mid 90s really 20+ years ago?)

By necessity we have to stretch out and back for great music; Like many things in this synthetic culture, goo, creative music has been a big casualty.

Liberator  posted on  2018-03-15   15:12:02 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

#15. To: Liberator (#14)

Did you ever listen to 38 Special or Rossington Collins? Both groups had some old Lynyrd Skynyrd members in them. I also think a member or two ended up with the Christian rock group called Vision (IIRC)...

In the way of country I always liked listening to Brooks and Dunn, Alabama, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Diamond Rio and Toby Keith...

And my favorite blues artist is Stevie Ray Vaughan got turned on to him when I was assigned to Dyess AFB in Texas.

Vegetarians eat vegetables. Beware of humanitarians!

CZ82  posted on  2018-03-15   18:02:41 ET  Reply   Trace   Private Reply  

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