(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend

"(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend" is a cowboy-styled country/western song written in 1948 by American songwriter, film and television actor Stan Jones.[1]

"(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend"
Published1948, Edwin H. Morris & Co Inc
ReleasedJune 5, 1948
GenreCountry, western
Songwriter(s)Stan Jones

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" (title code 480028324[2]), 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.[3]


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.[4]

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, 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.[1] The melody is based on the song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home".[5]

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), which topped the Billboard magazine charts, by Bing Crosby (with the Ken Darby Singers), Frankie Laine, Burl Ives (two different versions), Marty Robbins, The Ramrods and Johnny Cash. Other recordings were made by Eddy Arnold, Peggy Lee (with the Jud Conlon Singers), Christopher Lee, and Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Gene Autry sang it in the 1949 movie, Riders in the Sky. Jones recorded it for his 1957 album Creakin' Leather.[6] Children of Bodom, Impaled Nazarene, and Die Apokalyptischen Reiter have also made covers. The Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus sing the song dressed in cowboy attire and performing rope tricks.[7]



  • The original version by Stan Jones was recorded in late 1948 or early 1949. A recording by Stan Jones and his Death Valley Rangers issued on Mercury 5320 in May 1949.[8] Fellow songwriter Eden Ahbez sent the song to Burl Ives, who recorded his own version in early 1949.


  • Burl Ives recorded the song on February 17, 1949, and the song was released by Columbia Records as catalog No. 38445. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on April 22, 1949, lasting six weeks and peaking at No. 21.[9]
  • The version by Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra with Vaughn Monroe and The Moon Men on vocals, was recorded on March 14, 1949, and released by RCA Victor Records as catalog No. 20-3411 (in USA) and by EMI on the His Master's Voice label as catalog No. BD 1247, HN 3014, HQ 2071, IM 1425 and GY 878. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on April 15, 1949, lasting 22 weeks and reaching No. 1.[9] Billboard ranked it as the No. 1 song for 1949.[10]
  • The Bing Crosby version was recorded on March 22, 1949,[11] and released by Decca Records as catalog No. 24618. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on May 6, 1949, lasting 6 weeks and peaking at No. 14.[9]
  • The Peggy Lee version was recorded on April 18, 1949, and released by Capitol Records as catalog No. 57-608. It reached No. 2 on Billboard's Most Played By Disc Jockeys listing without appearing in the retail Top 30.
  • The Sons of the Pioneers recorded the song on April 28, 1949 which issued as RCA Victor 21-0065A and 48-0060A backed with "Room Full of Roses" recorded on the same date.
  • Spike Jones recorded the song on May 24, 1949, and it was released by RCA Victor Records as catalog No. 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.
  • Gene Autry recorded the song for Columbia Records on August 16, 1949, which issued as Columbia 20635, backed with "Cowboy's Trademarks" (recorded August 27, 1940), and sang it in his 1949 film Riders in the Sky released through Columbia Pictures.
  • Les compagnons de la chanson also made a cover in French, lyrics translated by Louis Amade and Jo Frachon


  • It is the opening track of Scatman Crothers' 1956 album, Rock 'n' roll with Scat Man.
  • Theodore Bikel sang a humorous version of the song in his An Actor's Holiday album (1956).
  • The Sons of the Pioneers recorded "Riders in the Sky" again on June 18, 1959 for their album Cool Water issued in 1959 as RCA LPM/LSP 2118.
  • "Ghost Riders in the Sky" is track 3 on the Somerset 1959 album P-11900/SF-11900 At Western Campfires by the Sons of the Purple Sage with Bob Wheeler (leader), Lina Shane, Jean Valli, George Faith, and Tony Clayton.
  • Kay Starr recorded a jazz/blues version as part of her 1959 album "Movin'!" Capitol Records – ST 1254




  • Country singer and rodeo cowboy Chris LeDoux recorded a version of the song for his 1980 album Old Cowboy Heroes. LeDoux's version swaps the placements of "yippie yi yay" and "yippie yi oh", and refers to the cowboy instead as a "cowpoke".
  • An instrumental version by the Shadows reached No. 12 on the UK Singles Chart in January 1980.[15] This version was a semitone higher than the original.
  • Australian band, the Fabulaires from Adelaide did a cover version on their Apocalypso 12" E.P. circa 1980.
  • Rock band Outlaws made a recording on their 1980 album Ghost Riders that omitted the last verse. This version spent 15 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 31 in March 1981.[16] They also released a live version of the song, recorded in 1982 at the King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show, which appeared on Greatest Hits of The Outlaws... High Tides Forever.
  • Dean "Red Elvis" Reed recorded the song on the album Country in 1982 in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.[17][18]
  • A Sesame Street version titled "The Dirtiest Town In The West" with altered lyrics first aired in 1982.
  • Vic Damone recorded a version on his 1982 album Over The Rainbow.
  • Psychobilly band King Kurt released a version in 1983 on their album Ooh Wallah Wallah.
  • British singer/comedian Russ Abbot released a parody version, “Ghost Joggers In The Sky”, on his 1983 album “Russ Abbot’s Madhouse” [19]
  • The Danish cowpunk band Disneyland After Dark (later just D-A-D) recorded the song "Riding With Sue" in 1986 for their album Call of the Wild where the riffs from the melody were used in an intermezzo.


  • The Chaps released a Scottish parody version called "Rawhide" in 1982.
  • Peter, Paul & Mary recorded a parody of the song titled "Yuppies in the Sky" on their 1990 album Flowers and Stones.
  • Terry Scott Taylor and Daniel Amos recorded a version in 1990 that appeared on The Miracle Faith Telethon compilation album.
  • Impaled Nazarene recorded a black metal version of the song, which was released on the Sadogoat EP in 1993. It was subsequently included in the CD version of their bonus album, Tol Cormpt Norz Norz Norz.
  • 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!"
  • Buckethead played a dub style version of the song during his Giant Robot album tour in 1994.
  • Dick Dale once again covered the song for his 1994 album, Unknown Territory. For a time, this version accompanied a NASA montage as part of the preshow video on Space Mountain at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom.
  • Duane Eddy brought his electrified "twangy guitar" sound along with a sax edition by Jim Horn to a 1996 version on an Curb Album Ghost Rider.[20]
  • On the 1997 album VH1 Storytellers, the song was recorded live with Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. In that performance, Willie Nelson misses the start of the third verse because he forgets the text, and ends up switching the third and fourth verses.
  • Deborah Harry, lead singer of Blondie, recorded a trance version of the song, which features on the soundtrack to the film Three Businessmen (1998). The song (produced and arranged by Dan Wool and Pray for Rain) is available free on her website.[21]
  • Christopher Lee recorded a version of this song on the album Devils, Rogues & Other Villains, released by Nikolas Schreck in 1998 on his Wolfslair label.
  • The Blues Brothers performed the song in the 1998 movie Blues Brothers 2000. This version appeared on both the movie's soundtrack and the compilation album The Blues Brothers' Greatest Hits of All Time. 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"). Buster Blues' (J. Evan Bonifant) harmonica parts for the film were recorded by John Popper of Blues Traveler.
  • In 1999, Ned Sublette included a merengue rendition on his album, Cowboy Rumba.



  • Judy Collins, featuring the Nashville Rhythm Section and Ghost Riders Chorus, covered "Ghost Riders in the Sky" on her 2010 album Paradise.
  • Florida/Utah death metal band, Gorlock, covered it on their 2011 EP titled Despair is My Mistress.
  • The song is the opening track on Roswell Rudd's album Trombone For Lovers.
  • The character of Granddad Brown in the Irish comedy series Mrs Brown's Boys briefly covered Ghost Riders in the Sky in the 2011 Christmas special episode "Mammy's Ass". The scene involves Granddad singing the song whilst Agnes hits him over the head with a metal tray, testing a crash helmet (which Granddad's wearing) her friend Winnie is meant to be testing.
  • A track on Drop The Lime's 2012 album Enter The Night used the instrumental of "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky".
  • "Outsider" music star, The Space Lady, featured it on her GREATEST HITS LP. (2013, Night School Records)
  • Screaming Orphans covered on the album Lonely Boy. (2011)
  • In 2015, a lower tempo version of Johnny Cash's cover was used on the announcement trailer for the forthcoming Space-Opera RPG, Mass Effect: Andromeda.
  • Monster truck Black Stallion uses it as its theme song.
  • Country artist Ray Scott (singer) covered Johnny Cash's version of this song on his EP, "Roots Sessions, Vol. 1" which was released in 2015.
  • Chrome Division covered Johnny Cash's version of this song on their 2011 3rd Round Knockout album.
  • Devil Driver covered Johnny Cash's version of this song on their 2018 "Outlaws 'Til the End: Vol. 1" album.
  • Milltown Roadshow (Maine) (2019) perform the song regularly with Jack D, Jolie singing lead.

Additional versions

Versions in various genres have also been made by the following artists:

Non-English versions


  • Czech versions titled "Ďáblovo stádo" by Rudolf Cortéz released in 1956, and by Waldemar Matuška in 1981.
  • Czech version titled "Nebeští Jezdci" by Taxmeni & Roger Latzgo released in 1991


  • Estonian-Canadian musician Jüri Lipp translated and recorded a surf rock version in Estonian in 1968.
  • Translated by Heldur Karmo ("Hilisõhtune Ratsamees") and performed in musical film "Meloodia 67" Tiiu Varik. (Estonian TV 1967) [24]
  • In same translation "Hilisõhtune Ratsamees" was performed by country-band Justament in album "Karmovõlg" (2012) [25]


  • A Finnish version titled "Aaveratsastajat" was written by Kullervo (born Tapio Kullervo Lahtinen) and it has been recorded by several popular artists including Henry Theel ja Metro-tytöt, Kari Tapio, Danny, Tapani Kansa, Reijo Taipale, and Ismo Alanko.
  • Juha Vainio wrote an alternative, humoristic version titled "Hirvenmetsästys" (The Moose Hunt). Pertti Metsärinteen yhtye recorded it in 1970.
  • An instrumental jazz version by Kalle Kalima on the album High Noon released in 2016.


  • A French-language version titled "Les Cavaliers du Ciel" was released by Les Compagnons de la chanson in 1949.
  • French guitarist and singer, Gill Dougherty, also released a version on his 1990 album, Live In Bourges.
  • In 1992, another French-language version titled "Où tu iras" was released by Les Naufragés, on their album A contre-Courant.


  • In 1949, a German-language version titled "Geisterreiter" was recorded and released by East German entertainer, Rita Paul & Her Cornel-Trio. In the same year, a version was released by Gerhard Wendland.
  • Additional German-language versions have been released by surf-punk-electro band, Mikrowelle, and television entertainer, Götz Alsmann featuring Bela B of Die Ärzte.
  • An instrumental version was done by the Austrian band "da Blechhauf`n" in 2012.[26]


  • An Italian-language version of the song, titled "I Cavalieri del Cielo" was recorded by famous Italian singer Gino Latilla in 1952 and was later recorded by famous Italian operatic tenor Mario Del Monaco in the late 1970s.


  • Kazuya Kosaka & The Wagon Masters released a cover album of western songs in 1968, sung in English and Japanese, that included an all-Japanese version of Riders in the Sky ライダースインザスカイ.


  • A Lithuanian-language version of the song titled "Jupi Ja Je" was recorded by Adolfas Jarulis ir Estradinės melodijos in 1971.



  • In 1966, a Spanish-language version, "Jinetes en el cielo", was recorded and released by the Mexican group, Los Baby's.[28]
  • Mexican singer Pedro Vargas also recorded a version.
  • The popular singer from Spain, Raphael, also released a Spanish version in the 1970s. The lyrical subject was changed to reflect 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 destiny by crying and praying for him then letting a rose fall on his grave.
  • Mexican singers and actors Manolín y Shilinsky (Manuel Palacios and Estanislao Shilinsky) recorded a comic version.[29]


  • Iskre - Nebeski Jahači (Ghost Riders In The Sky) 1965


Apart from the numerous recordings by various artists, "Ghost Riders in the Sky" has inspired various artists.


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  5. "(Ghost) Riders In the Sky by The Outlaws Songfacts". Songfacts.com. 1949-05-14. Retrieved 2012-02-17.
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  22. ""Ghostriders in the Sky" on the 2006 Die Apokalyptischen Reiter EP, Friede Sei Mit Dir". discogs.com. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
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  33. "UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH THE CAROLYN SILLS COMBO". kurrentmusic.com. 2017-02-10. Retrieved 2019-12-15.
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