An old cowboy went a riding on one dark and windy day … Riders in the Sky: a Cowboy Legend (1948), Stan Jones (1914-1963), American actor and songwriter


When he was twelve, Stan Jones heard a tale from an old cowboy. It was the inspiration for Ghost Riders. This version by Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson sounds to my fancy a bit like something of the Old West (1865-1895), not that I would really know.

I was born and educated in the Eastern U.S. about half-a-century after the Old West died. One day, I landed in the Western U.S., California, and stayed. Like most Americans of my time, I was reared on accounts (fiction and nonfiction) of the romanticized and reprehensible wild wild West. After having been fed on everything from Bret Harte’s short stories to cowboy songs and poetry to cowboy shows and movies, I was anxious upon arrival in California to explore the places that were legendary like San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton.  


A cowboy posing on a horse with a lasso and rifle visibly attached to the saddle, a quintessential Old West image. Public domain photograph courtesy of United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a15520

For me part of the mystique of the Old American West and its music, poetry and culture was that so many of the famous and infamous characters were actually not all that long dead when I was born. Buffalo Bill Cody died in 1917. Annie Oakley died in 1926, just ten years before my sister was born. Bat Masterson (lawman, marshal, buffalo hunter, gambler, and army scout) had retired from one of the most violent and lawless eras in the West to work as an East Coast sports editor and writer at my hometown paper, The New York Morning Telegraph (now defunct). He held that job in 1914, the year my mom was born. He died in 1921, after several more of her siblings came into this world. Although I very much doubt that my grandfather read about sports, it’s not unlikely that my mom’s older brother, Daher, read Masterson’s columns.

Ghost Riders was one of those songs that made me feel connected to the colorful characters of the Wild West who’d so recently tread this earth.  It also made me feel connected to the wider world. It’s probable that the story that inspired Stan Jones was some version of the almost universal tale of “the hunt,” which predates Christianity in Europe and arrived in the States with settlers from Europe, perhaps especially Germany and the Scandinavian countries. It’s a lyrical version of a lost soul caught in a never-ending hunt lead by a devil, shape shifter or psychopomp. Think of Gabriel Hounds or Woden’s Hunt. The German folklorist Jacob Grimm wrote about the hunt.

“Another class of spectres will prove more fruitful for our investigation: they, like the ignes fatui, include unchristened babes, but instead of straggling singly on the earth as fires, they sweep through forest and air in whole companies with a horrible din. This is the widely spread legend of the furious host, the furious hunt, which is of high antiquity, and interweaves itself, now with gods, and now with heroes. Look where you will, it betrays its connexion with heathenism.”
 .
Music has such a wonderful way of linking personal history and shared history. For me, Ghost Riders is just one example of this decidedly satisfying interconnection.
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© 2017, Jamie Dedes


Ghost Riders in the Sky

An old cowboy 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-plowing through the ragged sky and up the 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 coming hard and he heard their mournful cry

Yippie yi Ohhhhh
Yippie yi yaaaaay
Ghost Riders in the sky

Their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred, their shirts all soaked with sweat
He’s riding hard to catch that herd, but he 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

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
Trying to catch the Devil’s herd, across these endless skies

Yippie yi Ohhhhh
Yippie yi Yaaaaay

Ghost Riders in the sky
Ghost Riders in the sky
Ghost Riders in the sky

– Stan Jones

 

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