This was recorded for the Johnny Cash album Silver in 1979. It first appeared on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart in April of that year, lasting 16 weeks and peaking at No. 2 on July 27.
Written and originally recorded by American songwriter, film and television actor Stan Jones in 1948, the song “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend” was a cowboy-styled country/western song.
The song told 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 that he had been told the story when he was 12 years old by an old Native American who lived within Cochise County. The man believed that when souls vacate their physical bodies, they reside as spirits in the sky, resembling ghost riders.
Stan related this story to his friend Wayne Hester.
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”.
A number of versions were crossover hits on the pop charts in 1949, the most successful being by Vaughn Monroe.
The ASCAP database lists the song as “Riders in the Sky” but the title has been written as “Ghost Riders”, “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, and “A Cowboy Legend”. Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as the greatest Western song of all time.