Haunted Songs in Country Music: Ghost Riders in the Sky

Stan Jones, who wrote the song in June 1948, heard about the ghost riders from a real cowboy: “…As lightning flashed, the Cowboy told the boy to watch closely and he would see the devil’s herd, their eyes red and hooves flashing, stampede ahead of phantom horsemen. The Cowboy warned the youth that if he didn’t watch himself, he would someday be up there with them, chasing steers for all eternity…”

More than 50 performers have recorded versions of the song. Charting versions were recorded by The Outlaws, Vaughn Monroe (“Riders in the Sky” with orchestra and vocal quartet), by Bing Crosby (with the Ken Darby Singers), Frankie Laine, Burl Ives, (Two different versions), 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.

Thee original version was recorded on February 17, 1949 by Burl Ives. It first appeared on the Billboard charts on April 22, 1949, lasting 6 weeks and peaking at position #21. Riders in the Sky recorded this song on their debut album, Three on the Trail, in 1979. Johnny Cash recorded the song in 1979 and later with Willie Nelson on VH1 Storytellers in 1988.

Lyrics:
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

Jessica Blankenship

Jessica Blankenship is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website. The Berea College graduate has been a music journalist and historian for over 20 years. She enjoys providing concert photography, reviews, historical articles, red carpet event coverage, and exclusive interviews of your favorite musicians.  Jessica is proud to be a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the FFA and 4-H Clubs. In 2018, she was named one of Laurel County's Ten Under 40 Award Recipients.  In 2019, she was a member of the Inaugural class of BRIGHT Kentucky as part of Leadership Kentucky.  She has been featured on the Kentucky Music Preview podcast, Hollercast podcast, Overtones radio show, WFKY Nashville News Roundup, KET, and more.  Beyond music, she enjoys traveling, helping her community, collecting gnomes, and Volkswagens.

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