Aug 29 2013

Ghost riders in the sky

The late great Johnny Cash takes his turn at interpreting a strange but fascinating song, arguably one of the best cowboy songs ever written. I remember loving it for its great rhythm whenever it came on the radio, but never listened carefully to the lyrics. I just did so and found them weird, but the song is still great. Here is a live performance from 1987


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  1. 1
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    The rhythm is apparently based on When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, which in turn uses the same tune as Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya, which is also a very catchy tune. (And not one that’s nearly as mythic as Ghost Riders. The story is based on one told to the songwriter in his youth by an old ranch hand, and is similar to a legend of Scandinavia about a king cursed to ride with his hounds in an eternal hunt, and the unfortunates who crossed his path were forced to join him, and also has echoes of the Wild Hunt, although less directly threatening.

  2. 2
    Rob Grigjanis

    Great song, but my favourite Western ballad is Streets of Laredo, which was also recorded by Johnny Cash.

  3. 3

    Wikipedia almost ran out of disk space listing covers of this song.


    It is a great song.

  4. 4
    Francisco Bacopa

    This song is a retelling of the Celtic legend of The Wild Hunt, the eternal hunt led by a horned figure that takes hunters away for a few years or forever. It’s putting the ancient legend into the context of a demonic cattle roundup.

    In parts of Europe the Wild Hunt became conflated with Hebrew demonology. Oppressed Jews and oppressed Europeans who kept the old traditions shared stories and the hunters took on Hebrew names.

    This is why the original Star Wars was so good. Pure mythic archetypes. Luke, the Orphan-King farmboy, Leia, the spunky princess, Han, the pirate with a good heart, Chewbacca, the gentle beast, Vader, the faceless force of evil, and Obi-Wan, the kindly wizard. You just can’t lose.

  5. 5
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    Also derived from much older material; in the older versions it’s a sailor, or sometimes a soldier, who’s dying, rather than a cowboy, and the town can be anyplace that scans, or not named at all.

  6. 6

    Johnny Cash’s Long Black Veil also a good sad story

  7. 7

    It’s similar to an old english song from the nineteenth century, the name of which I forgot – “the poor rake” or some such title. The tune is irish and dates back at least to the eighteenth century as “the bard of Armagh”.

  8. 8
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    “The Unfortunate Rake” is the title of the oldest version still on record, also dating form the 18th century. There’s dozens of versions with assorted titles, though.

  9. 9

    And, of course, you can sing the lyrics to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island themes song.

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