"(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend" is a country and cowboy-style song. It was written on June 5, 1948 by Stan Jones. A number of versions were also crossover hits on the pop charts in 1949.
The song is about a cowboy who has a vision of red-eyed, steel-hooved cattle thundering across the sky, being chased by the ghosts 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 song's story has a marked resemblance to the northern European mythic Wild Hunt.
More than fifty different artists have recorded versions of this classic. Charting versions were recorded by Vaughn Monroe (with orchestra and vocal quartet), by Bing Crosby (with the Ken Darby Singers), Frankie Laine, Marty Robbins and by Johnny Cash. Other contemporary versions were recorded by Peggy Lee (with the Jud Conlon Singers), and by Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Gene Autry sang the song in his 1949 movie, Riders in the Sky.
According to Robby Krieger this song inspired the classic Doors song Riders on the Storm.
- The Vaughn Monroe version, the best-selling one, was recorded on March 14, 1949 and released by RCA Victor Records as catalog number 20-3411. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on April 15, 1949, lasting 22 weeks and peaking at position #1.
- Another popular early version was recorded by the Sons of the Pioneers.
- The Bing Crosby version was recorded on March 22, 1949 and released by Decca Records as catalog number 24618. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on May 6, 1949, lasting 6 weeks and peaking at position #14.
- The original version, by Burl Ives, was recorded on February 17, 1949 and released by Columbia Records as catalog number 38445. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on April 22, 1949, lasting 6 weeks and peaking at position #21.
- The Peggy Lee version was recorded on April 18, 1949 and released by Capitol Records as catalog number 57-608.
- The Spike Jones version was recorded on May 24, 1949 and released by RCA Victor Records as catalog number 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.
- In the UK, the best-known version is that by The Ramrods, which reached number 8 in 1961.
- Dick Dale recorded a version in the surf style and released it on his second album, King of the Surf Guitar, in 1963
- Duane Eddy brought his electrified "twangy guitar" sound along with a sax edition by Jim Horn to a 1966 version on an RCA Album of Duane's best
- Hank Marvin and The Shadows have done a very famous instrumental cover of the song.
- Riders in the Sky recorded this song on their debut album, Three on the Trail, in 1979, and on several of their subsequent albums.
- Johnny Cash made a recording in 1979 which was faithful to the original. He also recorded it live with Willie Nelson for 1998's VH1 Storytellers. In that recording, Willie Nelson misses the start of the third verse because he forgets the text, and ends up switching the third and fourth verses.
- The rock band The Outlaws made a recording in 1980 that left out the last verse.
- A version by The Shadows reached number 12 in the UK singles chart in 1980. This version was a semitone higher than the original.
- Milton Nascimento recorded a version in Portuguese as "Cavaleiros Do Céu" on his 1981 album Caçador de Mim.
- Impaled Nazarene recorded a black metal version of the song, which was released on the Sadogoat EP in 1993. Later it was included in the CD version of their bonus album Tol Cormpt Norz Norz Norz.
- Ned Sublette included a merengue rendition on his Cowboy Rumba (1999).
- 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!"
- The Blues Brothers performed the song in the movie Blues Brothers 2000. 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").
- The heavy metal band Die Apokalyptischen Reiter recorded a version that was released on their 2006 single, "Friede Sei Mit Dir".
- Me First and The Gimme Gimmes covered the song on their 2006 album Love Their Country.
- The German metal band Desperados, which featured members of Sodom, sang a version that can be described as a mix of country and thrash metal.
- Children Of Bodom recorded a thrash metal version of the song on their 2008 album Blooddrunk.
- Deborah Harry, lead singer of Blondie, recorded a trance version of the song which features on the soundtrack to the film Three Businessmen. The song is available free on her website deborahharry.com
- Both Dick Dale and The Ventures made surf rock covers of the song.
- Raphael recorded a version in Spanish.
- Pedro Vargas recorded a version called "Jinetes en el Cielo" in Spanish.
- During his tour as "Giant Robot", Buckethead played a dub style version of the song.
- During the credits of the 2007 movie Ghost Rider, a rock cover by the band Spiderbait is played. An instrumental version is also heard at points in the film.
- Frankie Laine recorded a version of it on his 1963 album Wanderlust.
- The children's singer Fred Penner performed a child-friendly version of the song and recorded it on his 1980 album The Cat Came Back. Penner's rendition has the phantom cowboy shout "If you want to save your soul you must count ONE cow...TWO cows...THREE cows...FOUR cows...BWA HA HA HA HA!!"
- Concrete Blonde recorded a version for their last album, 2004's Mojave.
- The Marshall Tucker Band also made a recorded version faithful to the original.
- Los Baby's, a famous 1960's band from Mexico, made the Spanish version called "Jinetes en el Cielo", which mean riders in the sky.
- Former REO Speedwagon guitarist Gary Richrath quoted the melody of the song during his unaccompanied guitar solo on the band's 1977 live album, Live: You Get What You Play For.
Recordings have also been made by Marty Robbins, Dean Martin, Boston Pops, Lawrence Welk, R.E.M., Dixie Chicks, Kaleidoscope and The Doors.
- During a writers' strike, an episode of the Smothers Brothers' television variety show featured a chorus of men and women wearing Groucho glasses and singing "Ghost Writers in Disguise".
- Various contemporary Celtic artists, including Éire Óg and the Irish Brigade, have performed this song with an alternative set of lyrics, known as "SAM Song", which glamorizes struggles in Northern Ireland between the paramilitary group calling itself the "Provisional Irish Republican Army" and British Police and Armed Forces. The term "SAM" from the song stands for "Surface to Air Missile", and the song is about destroying British helicopters, though no helicopters have been destroyed in this manner by the IRA. Many artists, particularly in the United States, are unaware of the background of the alternative lyrics, and so performing the song does not necessarily imply terrorist or republican sympathies.
- Gary Larson has touched on the theme in his popular cartoon The Far Side. The cartoon features a woman calling out "Henry! Hurry or you're gonna miss it - ghost riders in the kitchen!" as a pair of phantom riders herd cattle through her home. Larson doesn't think much of the cartoon now, dismissing it as what happens "when you stay up too late at night trying to think of something funny.
- The song is used by supporters of the Aston Villa Football Club. The lyrics are changed to "Holtenders in the Sky" in reference to the fans who sit in Villa Park's famous stand, The Holte End.
- A song sung by fans of Liverpool FC called "Rafael in Istanbul" is sung to the tune of Ghost Riders in the Sky. The song is about Liverpool's UEFA Champions League victory over A.C. Milan in the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final.
- The Corries performed a version written by Bill Hill which they claimed in their introduction to be the original of the song, titled "The Portree Kid" with the chorus referring to "The teuchter that cam' frae Skye".
- Singer/comedian Sean Morey has recorded a parody called "Ghost Chickens in the Sky", in which the ghosts of chickens hunt a chicken farmer. It ends with the line, "they cooked him extra crispy/and served him with coleslaw". Moosebutter, an a cappella group out of Utah, has a recording of this song.
- Tom Paxton wrote and recorded "Yuppies in the Sky".
- Celtic punk band The Prodigals recorded a version of the Irish traditional song "Spancill Hill", featuring the lyrics of that song set to the music (and including the "yippey yi-yay" chorus) from "Ghost Riders in the Sky" on their self-titled debut album.
- Spike Jones, during a live show, sung the song along with one of his bandmates. Although they sang it word for word, they did so while portraying elderly, incompetent cowboys.
- Honky Tonk Confidential borrowed the song's melody for their baseball-themed song "Bases on Balls".
- Country Bear Vacation Hoedown (Walt Disney World); The Five Bear Rugs sing this song.