When it comes to using music to tell a story, classic country music is one of the genres who have best learned to do so. And for this one I’m bringing out one of the greatest country storytellers, the Man in Black himself, the late Johnny Cash.
Actually, there were a number of people I could go with. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” has had many covers, but who can pass up Johnny Cash? The song brings us to the old days, when cowboys would ride the prairies for days and months at a time, tending herds or just getting from point A to point B. (They didn’t have a lot of vehicles in those days and trains didn’t go everywhere.) One night, a lone cowboy is settling down for the night when a vision tells a very grave future for him.
Originally performed by Burl Ives, the song has been performed by everyone from Gene Autry to Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley to the Doors. Even the Blues Brothers had a cover. Quite a pedigree for this song. The first time I heard the song was by the still active cowboy performing group Riders in the Sky, who credit the song with the source of their name and appeared on their first album. Their cover with Barbra Mandrell for one of their TV specials was the one I wanted to find, as it was my first exposure, but I couldn’t find it. Still…Johnny Cash.
Written by Stan Jones, who heard the story when he was 12, Wikpedia makes a connection to a European folk myth, The Wild Hunt. (It inspired the art piece by Peter Nicolai Arbo seen in the video clip, and I promise you I stumbled into that information. 🙂 ) In the myth:
The Wild Hunt is an ancient folk myth prevalent across Northern, Western and Central Europe.The fundamental premise in all instances is the same: a phantasmal group of huntsmen with the accoutrements of hunting, horses, hounds, etc., in mad pursuit across the skies or along the ground, or just above it.
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The Norse god Odin in his many forms, astride his eight-legged steed Sleipnir, came to be associated with the Wild Hunt in Scandinavia because of his aspect of berserking. Odin acquired the aspect of the Wild Huntsman, along with Frigg. The passage of this hunt was also referred to as Odin’s Hunt. People who saw the passing hunt and mocked it were cursed and would mysteriously vanish along with the host; those that joined in sincerity were rewarded with gold (H. A. Guerber, 1922). In the wake of the passing storm, with which the Hunt was often identified, a black dog would be found upon a neighboring hearth. To remove it, it would need to be exorcised similar to the custom for removing changelings. However, if it could not be removed by trickery, it must be kept for a whole year and carefully tended.
It was said that the Hunt would be connected to plagues and other catastrophes. The witness may even be the one to die. In the song, it’s more like a vision, as the cowboy is warned that if he doesn’t change his ways that his soul may join the riders in their eternal chase of “the Devil’s herd”, which would seem to include elements of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with the riders standing in for Jacob Marley to the cowboy’s Scrooge. While the song doesn’t tell us what the cowboy’s sins are or what impact the vision or event has on him, I would think that would scare me straight.
I’ve heard a few different versions for this article, and while I haven’t heard a bad one, nothing beats Johnny Cash’s version to my ears. That shouldn’t be a surprise, as he was a great storyteller as well as a great singer, and this is a great song. They were made for each other.