“Ghost Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend,” is an iconic American song made popular by Johnny Cash. It was written decades before Cash made it into a hit record by Stan Jones, who was born in Douglas and grew up on a ranch. Tucson author Michael Ward has written a book about Jones, “Ghost Riders in the Sky: The Life of Stan Jones, the Singing Ranger” and will discuss his work.
Ted Simons: "Ghost Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend," is an iconic American song that was made popular by a number of performers, including Vaughn Monroe, who had a big hit with the song in 1949. That very familiar song was written by Arizona native Stan Jones, who had quite a life in and out of show business. That life is chronicled in a new biography written by Tucson writer Michael Ward. Good to have you here.
Michael Ward: Thank you, appreciate it.
Ted Simons: Who was Stan Jones?
Michael Ward: He was born in Douglas in 1914. And he grew up, his father was -- Stan was not a planned arrival, and his father had abandoned the family before Stan was born. His mother struggled to raise him in a pretty shaky economy, after World War I was over and the copper boom kind of quit in Douglas. He grew up in Douglas for most of his adolescence and spent a lot of time on cattle ranches. He and his buddies would round up stray burros. And they pop out there and a good friend of his had a grandfather that owned a cattle ranch. This is where Stan got much of his inspiration for the songs that he wrote later as an adult.
Ted Simons: He moved to L.A. apparently, and was a rodeo rider, joined the Navy, a miner, a fire-fighter and eventually became a park ranger.
Michael Ward: A national park service ranger. He wrote the song "In Death Valley" while he was a ranger in Death Valley. His widow Olive had just turned 96, and is still with us, told me he wrote it in 10 minutes on a Sunday morning.
Ted Simons: Was he just staring at the sky? A beautiful day, a cloudy day? Death Valley, it's got to be a hot day.
Michael Ward: We don't know exactly what day it was. The story is that the clouds were there and reminded him. But he just had that image branded into his imagination from when he was about 10. There was a Cowboy named Capp Watts who befriended Stan. Watts was born in the Civil War was the real McCoy. He had cowboyed across the West and carried this legend with him. There are a couple of stories where that legend actually came from but he imprinted that into Stan's imagination. And supposedly, when there was a really violent thunderstorm and they were working on a windmill together, and Capp told Stan there were cowboys up there that were going to round up the clouds and staunch the rain. But that stayed with him. He took that, and the genius of this song is that it's very biographical because when he was sitting in that ranger station, for the first time in his life he was probably as settled and happy as he had ever been. He had went from job to job, there were a couple of failed marriages, kids. He really struggled throughout his adolescence.
Ted Simons: But he wrote songs all the while. He didn't all of a sudden decide to write a song.
Michael Ward: It's hard to pin down. I was amazed I found anything from that depression period. Many members of his family that had no idea where Stan was during those years. But he met Olive in Bend, Oregon, they were married in 1944. She remained his partner for the rest of her life. When he wrote that song it was a tale of redemption, almost like a Biblical parable. Cowboy, change your ways today. That's exactly what Stan had experienced. He took that ghost riders image, that life lesson and combined them to compose a very, very powerful song.
Ted Simons: And how quickly was this song -- obviously it changed his life. How quickly did it change his life?
Michael Ward: Well, because when the Vaughn Monroe version first came out, Burl Ives recorded it first just on 12 string guitar and it was popular, but nothing like the Vaughn Monroe version that came out in 1949. Stan's communications weren't instantaneous between Death Valley and Hollywood. But Stan got notice there was a royalty checking for him in L.A., the first check was $100,000. Of course what's a red blooded Arizona boy to do? He bought a brand-new Oldsmobile and drove back to Death Valley. He was still a park ranger and wanted to remain a park ranger. He loved his job as a ranger.
Ted Simons: He was settled enough to know the $100,000 is going to come, but he was still happy in his life.
Michael Ward: Yes. There were no guarantees that ghost riders would carry him forward. For the first time he was working for the government, working outdoors, had a job he loved and all the attendant government benefits. He didn't want to throw all that to the wind, because he couldn't see down the road. It became clear, he asked for a year's leave of absence but he and the superintendent didn't get along because he wanted Stan to shoot burros, and he wouldn't do that because he loved burros. The superintendent just wanted to get rid of Stan because people were starting to flock to Death Valley and meet the singing ranger and Stan Jones. It just came to a head and Stan finally had to retire. Eventually it was very clear they were going to coast for quite a while, just on the royalties alone from the song.
Ted Simons: But he did wind up going Hollywood and worked on some John Ford films and wound up being an actor.
Michael Ward: Stan himself was his best objective critic. He said I'm no actor and I have the film to prove it. The problem was, he was a happy little guy. Johnny Western was a really excellent friend and said, Stan always had that little kid gleam in his eye. Anything he did, he was on the Cochise serial western, he looked like he was always smiling inside. As an actor you need to look sad every now and then and Stan just couldn't do it.
Ted Simons: He wound up dying at the age of 49.
Michael Ward: He had cancer issues. He was a heavy smoker but he had some melanoma issues also from being outdoors all the time. And it was interesting, because his good friend Dobey Cary told me Stan had a premonition he wouldn't be around much beyond the age of 50. It proved to be true.
Ted Simons: Isn't that interesting. Why did you write this book? Had anyone written about Stan Jones?
Michael Ward: That surprised me. I lived in Death Valley for about 15 years before I moved to Tucson. And I wanted to write a piece for a Death Valley history conference on Stan Jones and his life as a ranger in Death Valley. I started to do a little research and there was essentially nothing written about him. It really surprised me. I found out his widow Olive, bless her heart, was alive and agreed to sit with me and tell me about their years in Death Valley together, which led to many, many little avenues about what Stan was up to. There was nothing. People in his family didn't know what he was up to. I really don't know. The first eyewitness account of him playing and singing was at his first park service ranger job, and that was 1945. I don't know when he learned to play or how long he had been playing the guitar.
Ted Simons: And there's that guitar, too.
Michael Ward: This is a four-string tenor guitar. One of the great songs of the 20th century was written on what is essentially a large ukulele. It's tuned like the first four strings of a tenor guitar and that was what Stan did. That was a gift from Olive. Once Olive gave him this gift, she knew he was trying to write cowboy stories and that was gift from her, saying I really support you, Stan, I really want you to carry this through.
Ted Simons: What are you hearing from folks about the book?
Michael Ward: I'm getting some really, really wonderful responses from people. It's such an interesting -- it's a classic American rags to riches story.
Ted Simons: Yeah.
Michael Ward: It was so interesting. He's kind of saddled with the "Ghost Riders in the Sky" thing, his "stairway to heaven." But he wrote the prolific creative writer all the way through to the end of his life. He wrote songs for the Walt Disney company, for films, especially John Ford. He wrote the theme song for "the searchers," widely known as John Ford's greatest western. He wrote the theme song for the Spin and Marty show, the #1 children's song in 1947. He wrote a great Cowboy gospel song called "saddle up." He kept writing good songs. He was a very, very interesting guy. I think it was the Death Valley connection for me, the fact that I lived there so long. I started to write songs when I was in Death Valley. I went to work for the national park service, and then I moved to Tucson. All these different current where we kind of seemed to intersect and here's the book.
Ted Simons: Congratulations on the book a good job and a good read.
Michael Ward: Thank you so much, Ted, I appreciate it.
Michael Ward:Author, "Ghost Riders in the Sky: The Life of Stan Jones, the Singing Ranger";