Ghost Riders in the Sky Book

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“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, iconic American song made popular by a number of performers, Monroe had a big hit with the song in 1949. Also a hit for Johnny Cash. 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. That biography was written by Tucson writer Mike Ward. I recently talked to Ward here on "Arizona Horizon."

Ted Simons: Good to have you here.

Mike Ward: Thank you, Ted.

Ted Simons: Who was Stan Jones?

Mike Ward: Stan Jones was born in Douglas, in 1914. And he grew up, his father -- Stan was not a planned arrival. His father had abandoned the family before Stan was born. His mom struggled to raise him in what was a pretty shaky economy after World War I was over and the copper boom kinds of quit in Douglas -- Stan grew up in Douglas for most of his adolescence, and spent a lot of time on cattle ranches. He and his buddies would rounds up stray burrows and hop out there, and a good friend of his, grandfather who owned a cattle ranch. This is where Stan got much of the inspiration for the songs he wrote later as an adult.

Ted Simons: He moved to L.A., joined the navy, miner, firefighter, eventually a park ranger.

Mike Ward: National park service ranger. He wrote the song in Death Valley when he was a park ranger. A wonderful stone ranger station, civilian conservation core, and his widow, Olive, bless her heart, just turned 96 and is still with us, told me that he wrote it 10 minutes on a Sunday morning.

Ted Simons: Was he just staring at the sky? Was it a beautiful, cloudy day. Death Valley, it has to be a hot day.

Mike Ward: We don't know exactly what day it was. Of course, the story is that the clouds were there.

Ted Simons: Yeah, yeah.

Mike Ward: But he had that image branded into his imagination from when he was about 10 years old. There was an old cowboy named Cap Watts that befriended Stan spending time on the ranches. He was born during the Civil War. He was the real Mccoy, he had cowboyed across the west and carried this legend with him. A couple of stories about where the legend actually came from. He imprinted that into Stan's imagination, supposedly when there was a really violent thunderstorm and they were working on a windmill together and told Stan that there were riders, 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 is very biographical. First time in his life, he was as settled and as happy has he had ever been. He went from job to job. A couple of failed marriages, kids. He really struggled throughout his adolescence.

Ted Simons: And he wrote songs -- it wasn't like he all of the sudden decided to write a song.

Mike Ward: It's really hard to pin down. I was amazed I found anything from the depression period. Many members of his family 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 for the rest of her life. When he wrote that song, he made it a tale of redemption, essentially, parable, cowboy change your ways today. That's exactly what Stan had experienced. He took the ghost riders image, life lesson and combined them and composed a very powerful song.

Ted Simons: Powerful song -- obviously it changed his life. How quickly did it change his life?

Mike Ward: Well, it's interesting. Because when the Monroe version -- recorded it first, it was popular, but nothing like the Monroe version that came out in April of 1949. Stan's communications weren't instantaneous between Death Valley and Hollywood. But Stan got noticed that there was a royalty check waiting for him in L.A. 1949, first check was $100,000. Of course, what does a red blooded American Arizona boy do, he bought a new Oldsmobile and drove it back to Death Valley -- he loved his job as a ranger.

Ted Simons: He was settled to the point -- he was settled enough to know $100,000 -- he was still happy in his life.

Mike Ward: Yes, no guarantees that Ghost Riders was going to carry him forward. First time in his life, working for the government, working outdoors. A job he loved. All of the attendant government benefits and he didn't want to throw all of that to the wind because he couldn't see down the road. It became clear -- he asked for a year's leave of absence. He and the superintendent didn't get along and he wanted Stan to -- the superintendent was -- just wanted to get rid of Stan because people were starting to flock in to Death Valley and they wanted to meet the singing ranger, Stan Jones, and they -- it just came to a head and Stan finally had to retire. And eventually it was very clear that they were going to, you know, coast for quite a while just on the royalties alone.

Ted Simons: He did wind up going to Hollywood, worked on John Ford films and wound up being an actor.

Mike Ward: Yes, and to -- Stan, himself, was his best objective critic. I'm no actor and I have the film to prove it. The problem was he was -- he was happy little guy. Johnny West, his friend, excellent friend, said Stan always had the little kid gleam in his eye. Whenever he was on screen -- anything he did, on Sheriff Cochise, which was a serial western, he -- he always -- he looked like he was always smiling inside. As an actor, you want to look sad or cry every now and again. Stan couldn't do it.

Ted Simons: He wound up dying young at the age of 49. What happened there?

Mike Ward: He had cancer issues.

Ted Simons: A heavy smoker.

Mike Ward: He was, but he had melanoma issues --

Ted Simons: From being outdoors all of the time.

Mike Ward: From being outdoors all of the time. It was interesting, his good friend, Doby, Stan had a premonition he wouldn't be around much beyond the age of 50 and he told them that many years before and it was proven to be true.

Ted Simons: Has anyone written about Stan Jones?

Mike Ward: That surprised me. This started as -- I lived in Death Valley for 15 years before moving 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. Essentially nothing written about him. Really surprised me. There is nothing on him. And 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. There was nothing. People in his family didn't know what he was up to. I really don't know -- the first eye witness account of him playing and singing guitar is from a fellow who knew him in Mount Rainier -- that was 1945 -- I don't know when he learned to play the guitar or how long he had been playing the guitar.

Ted Simons: There is the guitar.

Mike Ward: Four-string tenor guitar. I don't know that many people know that one of great songs of the 20th century, written on what is -- it was designed from a tenor banjo in the 1920s, and the strings -- you could tune it like a tenor banjo, or the first four strings of a standard guitar, which is what Stan did, and that was his guitar of choice and that was a gift from Olive. Olive -- she knew he was trying to write cowboy stories and songs and this was a gift from her saying that I support you, Stan, and I want you to carry this through.

Ted Simons: Have you had much reaction from the book? What are you hearing from folks?

Mike Ward: I'm getting some really wonderful responses from people. It's such an interesting -- a classic American rags to riches story. So interesting. He's kind of saddled with the "Ghost Riders in the Sky" -- it's his Stairway to Heaven. He was a prolific creative writer through to the end of his life. Wrote songs for the Walt Disney Company, for films. He wrote the theme song for The Searchers, John Ford's greatest western. He wrote the theme for the Spin and Marty Show, the number one children's song in 1957. He wrote a great cowboy Gospel song called "saddle up". He kept writing good songs. A very, very interesting guy. I think it was the death valley connection for me, the fact I lived there so long -- I started to write songs when I was in Death Valley and I went to work for the national park service, and moved to Tucson and Stan was from southern Arizona. All of these different currents where we seemed to intersect and here is the book.

Ted Simons: Congratulations on the book. Good job and a good read. Thank you for joining us.

Mike Ward: Thank you so much, Ted, I appreciate it.

Video: We want to hear from you. Submit your questions, comments, and concerns via email at Arizona Horizon at ASU.EDU.

Ted Simons: Friday, it's the "Journalists' Roundtable." We will have the latest on the waning days of the legislative session. Including a look at bills signed by the governor and those that fail to survive the veto pen. Those stories and more Friday on the "Journalists' Roundtable." That is it for now. Thank you for joining us. You have a great evening.

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Michael Ward:Author, "Ghost Riders in the Sky:The Life of Stan Jones, the Singing Ranger";

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