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"(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend" is
a country and cowboy-style
song. It was written on June 5, 1948 by Stan Jones. The
tune (not the lyrics) bear a strong resemblance to the 19th Century
Irish anti-war song Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye. A
number of versions were crossover hits on the
pop charts in 1949. The ASCAP
database lists the song as "Riders in the Sky" (title code:
the title has been written as "Ghost Riders", "Ghost Riders in the
Sky", and "A Cowboy Legend".
The song tells 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". Jones said that he had been told the story when he
was 12 years old by an old cowboy friend. The
story resembles the northern European mythic Wild Hunt.
More than 50 performers have recorded versions of the song.
Charting versions were recorded by Vaughn Monroe ("Riders in the Sky" with
orchestra and vocal quartet), by Bing Crosby (with the Ken Darby Singers), Frankie Laine, Marty Robbins, and Johnny Cash. Other recordings were made by
Peggy Lee (with the Jud
Conlon Singers) and Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Gene Autry sang it in the
1949 movie, Riders in the Sky. Children of
Bodom and Die Apokalyptischen Reiter
have also made covers.
According to Robby Krieger, it inspired the classic Doors song "Riders on
the Storm." The Doors also covered Ghost Riders in the Sky.
The song was also the inspiration for the Marvel Comics
character "Ghost Rider."
- Another popular early version was recorded by the Sons of the Pioneers.
- The Bing Crosby
version was recorded on March 22, 1949 and released by Decca Records as
catalog number 24618. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on May 6,
1949, lasting 6 weeks and peaking at position #14.
- The original version, by Burl Ives, was recorded on February 17, 1949
and released by Columbia Records as catalog number
38445. The recording first appeared on the Billboard
charts on April 22, 1949, lasting 6 weeks and peaking at position
- The Peggy Lee
version was recorded on April 18, 1949 and released by Capitol Records
as catalog number 57-608. It reached #2 in Billboard's Most Played
By Disc Jockeys listing without appearing in the retail Top
- The Spike Jones
version was recorded on May 24, 1949 and released by RCA Victor Records as catalog number
20-3741. Copies of the original release, containing lyrics
ridiculing RCA stockholder Vaughn Monroe, are rare. The recording
parodies the original Monroe recording, injecting much of Jones'
quintessential humor along the way.
- A twangy guitar instrumental version by The Ramrods, made the
Billboard Top 30 in 1961, as well as the Top 10 in the UK. This was
covered by UK band The Scorpions (not the
German heavy metal band) on the "Parlophone" Label.
- Dick Dale recorded a
version in the surf style and released it on his second album,
King of the Surf Guitar,
in 1963. For a time it also accompanied a NASA montage as part of
the preshow video on Space Mountain .
- Duane Eddy brought
his electrified "twangy guitar" sound along with a sax edition by
Jim Horn to a 1966 version
on an RCA Album of Duane's Best.
- Riders in the Sky recorded
this song on their debut album, Three on the Trail, in 1979,
and on several of their subsequent albums.
- Johnny Cash made
a recording in 1979 which was faithful to the original. He also
recorded it live with Willie Nelson for 1998's VH1
Storytellers. In that recording, Willie Nelson misses the
start of the third verse because he forgets the text, and ends up
switching the third and fourth verses.
- Recorded by Elvis Presley in June 1970 at MGM's
soundstage in Culver City.
- Dolan Ellis,
Arizona's Official State Balladeer since 1966, included this as the
only cover on his CD, "Tall Tales, Lost Trails & Heroes,"
released in 2000. He has sung the song throughout the nation and in
20 foreign countries, solo and as a member of the New Christy Minstrels,
always telling the folk tale of Stan Jones, the Cochise County
- The rock band Outlaws made a recording in 1980 that
left out the last verse.
- A version by The
Shadows reached number 12 in the UK Singles Chart in 1980. This version
was a semitone higher than the original.
Nascimento recorded a version in Portuguese as "Cavaleiros Do
Céu" on his 1981 album Caçador de Mim.
- Trigemeos Vocalistas recorded a version of Santos Rodrigues as
"Vaqueiros de Marajo" in 1950 Odeon's 13045 recording side A.
Nazarene recorded a black metal version of the song, which was
released on the Sadogoat EP in 1993. Later it was included
in the CD version of their bonus album Tol Cormpt Norz Norz
- Ned Sublette
included a merengue rendition on his Cowboy
- The Alberta Celtic rock group Captain Tractor recorded an unusual
version for their 1994 album Land. New lyrics describe the
frenzy of corruption in a prairie town at the climax of a real estate
bubble. Rather than fire-and-brimstone Christian imagery, the
warning takes the form of vaguely Zen lamentations—"The winds still blow / The rains
still fall / The trees don't seem to care AT ALL!"
Blues Brothers performed the song in the movie Blues
Brothers 2000. Similar to the "Rawhide" scene in the first movie, the
band is mistakenly booked at a bluegrass festival (announced to the
crowd as the "Bluegrass Brothers").
- The heavy metal band Die Apokalyptischen Reiter
recorded a version that was released on their 2006 single, "Friede
Sei Mit Dir".
- Me First and the Gimme
Gimmes covered the song on their 2006 album Love Their
- Deborah Harry,
lead singer of Blondie, recorded a trance version of
the song which features on the soundtrack to the film Three
Businessmen. The song (produced and arranged by Dan Wool and Pray for Rain) is
available free on her website deborahharry.com.
- Both Dick Dale and
The Ventures made
of the song.
Scott Taylor and Daniel Amos recorded a version in 1990 that
appeared on the "Miracle Faith Telethon" compilation album.
- Pedro Vargas
recorded a version called "Jinetes en el Cielo" in Spanish.
- Raphael a Spanish singer in the 70's
performed this song, changing the lyrics talking about a cowboy
doomed to ride for eternity for breaking a young girl's heart. The
song ends happily when the girl saves him from that horrible
destinity by crying and praying for him, then letting a rose on his
- During his tour as "Giant Robot", Buckethead played a dub style version of the
- During the credits of the 2007 movie Ghost
Rider, a rock cover by the band Spiderbait is played. An instrumental
version is also heard at points in the film.
Laine recorded a version of it on his 1963 album
- The children's singer Fred Penner performed a child-friendly
version of the song and recorded it on his 1980 album The Cat
Came Back. Penner's rendition has the phantom cowboy shout "If
you want to save your soul you must count ONE cow...TWO
cows...THREE cows...FOUR cows...BWA HA HA HA HA!!"
Blonde recorded a version for their last album, 2004's Mojave.
- The Marshall Tucker Band also
made a recorded version faithful to the original.
- Los Baby's, a
famous 1960's band from Mexico, made the Spanish version called
"Jinetes en el Cielo", which mean riders in the sky.
- Former REO
Speedwagon guitarist Gary Richrath quoted the melody of the
song during his unaccompanied guitar solo on the band's 1977 live
album, Live: You Get What You Play For.
- The German "Western Metal" band Desperados/Dezperadoz
(featuring a member of Sodom) covered the song on their 2000
album The Dawn of Dying.
- The Texan band Ghoultown recorded a version of this song on
their album Tales From The Dead West
Spotnicks, a Swedish instrumental rock band, covered this song
and released it on The Spotnicks in London.
- Finnish Medolic Death Metal band Children of Bodom covered this song
under the title 'Ghostriders in the Sky' and have released it on
the special edition of their 2008 album Blooddrunk.
- Adelaide, Australia band The Fabulaires did a cover version on
their Apocalypso 12" E.P. circa 1980.
Marimba Band recorded this song on the album "Watch Out!" in
Recordings have also been made by Mary McCaslin, Marty Robbins, Dean Martin, Boston
Welk, R.E.M., Dixie Chicks, Kaleidoscope, The Doors, ( Guy
Vanderhoof), and the British gothic rock band Scary Bitches. There
is a German language version of the song called "Geisterreiter"
which as early as 1949 was recorded by east german entertainer Rita
Paul & ther Cornel-Trio. Same year the version was released by
Gerhard Wendland. More than 20 versions of the German version are
known. Most notably by Howard Carpendale and Karel Gott. There is a
cover by the surf-punk-electro-band Mikrowelle as well as in 2008
by German TV-entertainer Götz Alsmann feat. Bela B (from Die
- The Hitchcocks, an instrumental Surf Horror Punk band from São
Paulo - Brazil, covered this song and released it on The
Hitchcocks EP .
- Various contemporary Celtic artists, including Éire Óg and the
Irish Brigade, have performed this song with an alternative set of
lyrics, known as "SAM Song", about The Irish
Republican Army Freedom Fighters in Northern Ireland and the
fighting between the PIRA and the Police
and Armed Forces. The term "SAM" from the song stands for "Surface
to Air Missile", the song is about the IRA gaining possession of
the missiles although they have not yet been used in battle.
- Russ Abbot recorded a version in 1984 called "Ghost Joggers in
the Sky" and is featured on the Russ Abbot's Madhouse album.
- Gary Larson has
touched on the theme in his popular cartoon The Far Side.
The cartoon features a woman
calling out "Henry! Hurry or you're gonna miss it - ghost riders in
the kitchen!" as a pair of phantom riders herd cattle through her
home. Larson doesn't think much of the cartoon now, dismissing it
as what happens "when you stay up too late at night trying to think
of something funny."
- The song is used by supporters of the Aston Villa
F.C.. The lyrics are changed to "Holtenders in the Sky" in
reference to the fans who sit in Villa Park's famous stand, The
- The Corries
performed a version written by Bill Hill which they claimed in their
introduction to be the original of the song, titled "The Portree
Kid" with the chorus referring to "The teuchter that cam' frae Skye".
- Singer/comedian Sean Morey has recorded a parody
called "Ghost Chickens in the Sky", in which the ghosts of chickens
hunt a chicken farmer. It ends with the line, "they cooked him
extra crispy/and served him with coleslaw". Moosebutter, an a cappella group out of Utah, has a recording of this song. Moosebutter has also
recorded "Home Teachers In The Night", another parody of the
- Similarly, filker Pete Grubbs wrote a parody called
"Ghost Dachshunds In The Sky."
- Mickey Katz recorded a parody called "Borscht Riders in the
- Tom Paxton wrote
and recorded "Yuppies in the Sky".
- Celtic punk band
recorded a version of the Irish traditional song "Spancil Hill",
featuring the lyrics of that song set to the music (and including
the "yippey yi-yay" chorus) from "Ghost Riders in the Sky" on their
self-titled debut album.
- Spike Jones,
during a live show, sung the song along with one of his bandmates.
Although they sang it word for word, they did so while portraying
elderly, incompetent cowboys.
- Keeter Stuart -Ghost Riders, Searchers & Cowpokes Stan's
nephew Keeter Stuart released his latest album Ghost Riders,
Searchers & Cowpokes as a tribute to his uncle Stan.
- Martin Pearson wrote a parody titled "The Nazgul Song" for his
Lord of the Rings comedy show The
Unfinished Spelling Errors of Bolkien.