“(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.
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 one of the Top 100 Western songs 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”. Jones stated he had been told the story when he was 12 years old by an old cowboy friend.
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 himself recorded it for his 1957 album Creakin’ Leather. Children of Bodom, Impaled Nazarene and Die Apokalyptischen Reiter have also made covers.
The melody is based on the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”