Today’s song is ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’. This song is a cowboy Country & Western song that was written in 1948 by American songwriter, film and television actor Stan Jones. This song would become a cowboy legend and was even covered as late as 2018, when ‘Devil Driver’ covered Johnny Cash's version of this song on their 2018 “Outlaws 'Til the End: Vol. 1” album. Since first being recorded in 1948, approaching eighty artists have covered the song in recordings of their own. Indeed, members of the western writers of America chose it as ‘The Greatest Western Song of All Time’.
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". The story has been linked with old European myths of the ‘Wild Hunt’, in which a supernatural group of hunters passes the narrator in wild pursuit.
Stan Jones stated he had been told the story when he was 12 years old by an old Native American who resided north-east of the Douglas, Arizona border town, a few miles behind D Hill, north of Agua Prieta in Sonora. The Native Americans, possibly Apache, who lived within Cochise County, believed that when souls vacate their physical bodies, they reside as spirits in the sky, resembling ghost riders. He related this story to Wayne Hester, a boyhood friend (later owner of the ‘Douglas Cable Company’). As both boys were looking at the clouds, Stan shared what the old Native American had told him, looking in amazement as the cloudy shapes were identified as the ‘ghost riders’ that years later, would be transposed into lyrics. The melody is based on the song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home’.
There are far too many artists who have covered and recorded this song to name, but a few notables would include Stan Jones who recorded the original version in late 1948 or early 1949. Other notables who recorded the song include Vaughn Monroe: Bing Crosby: Frankie Laine: Marty Robbins: Johnny Cash: Peggy Lee: Gene Autry: Burl Ives: Frank Ifield: Tom Jones and even Elvis Presley in 1970, while Duane Eddy brought his electrified ‘twangy guitar’ sound along with a sax edition by Jim Horn to a 1996 version of ‘Ghost Rider’.
Sometime during the 1950s, I first heard this song being sung by my maternal uncle, Johnnie Fanning. Johnnie was the third eldest child in my mother’s family. My mother and father migrated to West Yorkshire from Ireland in the mid-1940s with the first three children of their marriage. I was the oldest child of my parents (there would eventually be seven children born), and like her family before ours, my mother was also the oldest of seven children born to her parents.
As the oldest child in her family, now settled in England with their own council property, my mother put up each of her three brothers as they too migrated to England, three years apart from each other. Willie was the first of my mother’s siblings who we accommodated, Johnnie was the second and Tom was the third to be put up in our house until they got settled in work and an eventual place of their own. Each uncle (now all sadly deceased) brought their own choice of song with them. Uncle Willie sung any Irish song when he lived with us and Uncle Tom’s favourite was ‘When I Fall in Love’. But Uncle Johnnie’s two favourite songs which he never failed to sing any single day of the three years he lived with us was ‘Down Mexico Way’ and ‘Ghost Riders in The Sky’.
So, the first man I heard sing ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ was my Uncle Johnnie and the next man I heard sing it on the radio was Johnny Cash.
I don’t know if they allow you to sing songs either ‘down there’ or ‘up there’ Uncle Johnnie, but if they do, I know that it will most certainly be one of these two songs that you are singing. God bless you. Your nephew Billy (or as you always referred to me outside your company, ‘Billy Forde, Maureen’s oldest’).
Love and peace Bill xxx