Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Ghost Story that Inspired an International Hit

Stan Jones was a Texas forest ranger who wrote songs on the side. In 1948, taking inspiration from a ghost legend that an old cowboy told him when he was twelve, he sat down and wrote the lyrics to a song about "a cowboy in hell." 

In this legend, the cowboy, like many others, was doomed to chase the Devil’s cattle for eternity. 

Jones wrote the words and matched them to the  melody “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. 

His cowboy friend told him the following story.

Sawyer, a cattleman, was driving 1000 herd of cattle through Crosby County Texas on his way to the railhead at Kansas when he encountered a very angry homesteader or “nester.” 

He had crossed this mans’ land early that morning and the nester informed him that several of his Mavericks had gotten mixed in with his herd. 

The nester demanded that he stop and separate these mavericks from the bunch. 

Sawyer, short-handed and tired knew a storm was headed their way. He had one worry, he needed to get his cattle to a safe place for the night. 

Distracted, he informed the nester he would have to wait until morning to retrieve his "scraggly cows."

Now angry, the nester threatened Sawyer--he stated that if he didn’t get his cattle back right then, he would stampede the herd. Sawyer impatient pulled out his gun and told the man to “vamoose.” 

Sawyer then drove his herd onto a mesa top that had good grass and water. This spot was ideal because the mesa provided a natural barrier, which protected his cattle from predators. He then sent two of his men out to guard the herd that night.

Hours later, the nester managed to slip past these two guards. He positioned himself at the back of the herd. He waved a blanket, shouted, and shot his gun in the air. 

It doesn’t take much to scare a herd, the cows stampeded in blind terror toward the edge of the mesa cliff. They plunged to their deaths, bringing the two herders with them. 

It took Sawyer and his men the rest of the night to round up the remaining cattle. Seven hundred cows of the thousand had gone over the cliff.

Sawyer furious wanted revenge. 

He and his men captured the nester and brought him back to the mesa. They tied him to his horse with a rawhide lariat and blindfolded his horse. They then drove this man and his horse over the same cliff the cattle had plunged off. 

After that night, this mesa became known as "Stampede Mesa."

Cattlemen who have driven their herds to this spot state their cows stampeded in a panic without reason. Others report that during storms, over this mesa, they have seen the ghost of the murdered nester tied to his blindfolded horse chasing a phantom herd of cattle across the sky.

This story resembles the northern European mythic Wild Hunt. But in this original version, the story involved wild hounds, not cattle. 

It is believed, this legend reflects the cowboy’s fear of change, which meant the loss of the open range. By 1870, cheap barbed wire made it possible for settlers to set boundaries, animals couldn’t cross.

The success of Jones’ song keeps this tale alive.

“They have to ride forever on that range up in the sky, on horses breathing fire, as they ride, I hear them cry…”

Jones was the first to record it. But over fifty performers have recorded it since. Including various versions in Canada and Europe. 

The song is known as “Ghost Riders,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “A Cowboy Legend” A wide range of artists have put their own twist to it over the years. 

Some of these singers and groups  include: Vaughn Monroe, whose version was the first to hit the charts, Burl Ives, The Sons of the Pioneers, Johnny Cash, The Outlaws, Bing Crosby, Deborah Harry, Marty Robbins, Dean Martin, Boston Pops, Lawrence Welk, R.E.M., Dixie Chicks, Gene Autry and the American Boys Chorus.

This song inspired The Doors to write Riders on the Storm.

Here is one of my favorite versions, Johnny Cash with lyrics.

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