“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: Good evening. Welcome to the special music edition of "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Ghost riders in the sky, a cowboy legend, is a well-known American song made popular by a number of performers including Vaughn Monroe, had a big hit with the song in 1949. [Singing] upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way all at once a mighty herd of red-eyed cows he saw . They're ghost riders in the sky.
Ted Simons: That iconic 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, who recently spoke to us about the book. Good to have you here.
Michael Ward: Thank you so much, Ted. Appreciate it.
Ted Simons: Who was Stan Jones?
Michael Ward: Stan Jones was born in Douglas in 1914. He grew up, his father Stan was not a planned arrival and his father had abandoned the family before Stan was born. His mom struggled to raise him in what was a pretty shaky economy after the World War I was over, copper boom quit Douglas. But Stan grew up in Douglas for most of his adolescence. Spent a lot of time on the cattle ranches east of Douglas. He and his buddies would round up stray burrows and they would hop out there and a good friend of his had a grandfather that owned a cattle ranch. This is where Stan got much of the inspiration for songs rewrote later as an adult.
Ted Simons: Moved to L.A., apparently. Rodeo rider, joined the Navy. A miner. A firefighter. And eventually a park ranger.
Michael Ward: A national park service ranger. He wrote the song in death valley when he was a park ranger. He had a wonderful old stone ranger station built by the civilian conservation corps. His widow olive, just turned 96, is still with us, told me he wrote it in ten minutes on a Sunday morning.
Ted Simons: Was he just staring at the sky? Was it a beautiful day? A cloudy day? Death valley, had to be a hot day.
Michael Ward: We don't know exactly what day it was. Of course the story is that the clouds are there -- but he just had that image branded into his imagination from when he was about 10 years old. There was an old cowboy named cat Watts that befriended Stan when he was spending his time on the ranch east of Douglas. He was the real McCoy. He had cowboyed across the west and carried this legend with him. There's a couple stories about where that legend came from, but he imprinted that into Stan's imagination, supposedly when there was a really violent thunderstorm and they were working on a windmill together. Cap told Stan there were riders, cowboys up there that were going to round up the clouds. Staunch the rain. That stayed with him. He took that and the genius of this song is that it's a very biographical song. When Stan was sitting on that ranger station for the first time in his life he was probably as settled and happy as he had ever been. A rake and rambling boy during the depression. He went from job to job, there were a couple of failed marriages, kids. He really struggled throughout his adolescence.
Ted Simons: Yet he wrote songs all the while. Wasn't like he just decided to write a song.
Michael Ward: It's really hard to pin down. I was amazed I found anything from that depression period because many members of his family that had no idea where Stan was during those years, but he met olive in Bend, Oregon, and they were married in 1944. She remained his partner the rest of her life, so when he wrote that song he made it a tale of redemption, essentially. Like a biblical parable. Cowboy change your ways today. That's what Stan had experienced. As he took ghost riders, took that life lesson, combined them and made created a composed a very powerful song.
Ted Simons: A powerful song. How quickly was this -- obviously it changed his life. How quickly?
Michael Ward: Well, it's interesting. When Vaughn Monroe's version first came out, Burl Ives recorded it first but just on 12-string guitar. It was popular but nothing like the Monroe version that came out in April 1949. Stan's communications weren't instantaneous between death valley and Hollywood but Stan noticed there was a royalty check waiting for him in L.A. His first check was $100,000.
Ted Simons: Oh, my goodness.
Michael Ward: What's a red-blooded American Arizona boy do? He bought a brand new Oldsmobile. He was still a park ranger and loved his job as a ranger.
Ted Simons: He was settled to the point, he was settled enough to know the $100,000, maybe more, will come, but he was happy in his life.
Michael Ward: Yes. There was no guarantees that ghost riders would carry him forward. Here he was, working for the government, working outdoors, had a job he loved, had all the attendant government benefits. He didn't want to just throw that to the wind because he couldn't see down the road. But it became clear, he asked for a year's leave of absence. He and the superintendent didn't get along. He wanted Stan to shoot burrows and Stan wouldn't do that because he loved burrows. The superintendent wanted to get rid of Stan because people were starting to flock into death valley. They wanted to meet the singing ranger, wanted to meet Stan Jones. Stan had to retire. Eventually it was very clear that they were going to coast for quite a while just on the royalties alone.
Ted Simons: But he did wind up going to Hollywood, worked on some John Ford films. Wound up being an actor.
Michael Ward: Yes. Stan himself was his best objective critic. I'm no actor, and I have the film to prove it. The problem was he was happy little guy. Johnny western, really excellent friend, said Stan always had that little kid gleam in his eye. He was on the Spin and Marty show, on Sheriff Cochise, which was a serial western. He always looked like he was always smiling inside. As an actor you want to look sad or cry every now and then. Stan couldn't do it.
Ted Simons: He died young, at the age of 49.
Michael Ward: He had cancer issues.
Ted Simons: Oh, my goodness.
Michael Ward: He was a heavy smoker but he had melanoma issues also back then from being outdoors all the time. It was interesting because his good friend Dobie Kerry told me Stan had a premonition he wouldn't be around much beyond the age of 50. He told them that many years before. It proved to be true.
Ted Simons: Isn't that interesting. Why did you write this book? Has anyone written about Stan Jones?
Michael Ward: Well, that surprised me. This started as I lived in Death Valley for about 15 years before I moved to Tucson. I wanted to write a piece for Death Valley history conference on Stan Jones and his life as a ranger in Death Valley. I started doing a little research and there was essentially nothing written about him. Really surprised me. Nothing. I found out that 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 because there was nothing. People in his family didn't know what he was up to. The first eyewitness account of him playing and singing guitar is from a fellow who knew him in Mount Rainier, his first park ranger job, in 1945. I don't know when he learned to play the guitar or how long he had been playing it.
Ted Simons: There's that guitar too, huh?
Michael Ward: This is four-string tenor guitar. Not too many people know one of the great songs of the 20th century was written on what is essentially an oversized ukulele. It was designed from a tenor banjo from the 1920's. The strings you could tune it like a tenor banjo or tune it four strings of a standard guitar, which is what Stan did. That was a gift from Olive. I'm guessing that once Olive gave him this gift because she knew he was trying to write cowboy stories and songs, and this was a gift from her saying I really support you, I want you to carry this through.
Ted Simons: What are you hearing from folks?
Michael Ward: I'm getting some really, really wonderful responses from people. It's a classic American rags to riches story. It was so interesting. He's saddled with ghost riders in the sky thing. It's his stairway to heaven. That's the one. But he was a prolific creative writer through to the end of his life. He wrote songs for Walt Disney, for films, 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 number one children's show in 1957. He wrote a great cowboy gospel song called Saddle Up. He kept writing good songs and he was a very, very interesting guy. I think it was the Death Valley connection for me, I lived there so long, I started writing songs when I was there. I went to work fort national park service. Stan worked there. I moved to Tucson and Stan was from southern Arizona. Just all these different currents where we seemed to intersect. Here's the book.
Ted Simons: Well, congratulations on the book. Good job and a good read. Thanks for joining us. Thank you so much.
Michael Ward: Thanks, Ted. Appreciate it.
Michael Ward:Author, "Ghost Riders in the Sky: The Life of Stan Jones, the Singing Ranger";