Ghost Musicians in the Cloud

In 1948 Stan Jones, who had received a master’s degree in zoology from University of California-Berkeley, a rodeo competitor, actor, singer, songwriter, and one-time National Park Service employee in Death Valley, wrote a cowboy song about ghost riders in the sky. He and his Death Valley Rangers recorded “Riders in the Sky,” which was then covered by an array of other musicians.

For example, there was Burl Ives, whose version spent six weeks on the Billboard chart in 1949, peaking at 21.

There was another recording, this by Vaughn Monroe and the Moon Men. (Evidently this had nothing to do with Outer Space; Monroe’s signature tune was “Racing With the Moon,” which was released in 1941 and became a million seller—by 1952. Monroe, who was a big band leader, also performed with the Moonmaids, from ’46 to ’52.)

Bing Crosby recorded “Riders in the Sky.” His version made it to 14 on the Billboard charts.

Miss Peggy Lee recorded the song.

In the cases of Ives, Monroe, Crosby and Lee these songs were all recorded in the Spring of 1949. This means that within a year Jones’s original was released then covered multiple times and those multiples were all vying for airplay at approximately the same time.

Lawrence Welk and His Orchestra recorded an instrumental version of “Riders” in 1961, the same year The Ramrods released its instrumental version that includes various cowpoke-related overdubs. (The Ramrods was formed in 1956 by sister and brother Claire and Rich Litke; Claire played drums for the band. Meg White wasn’t born until 1974.)

Johnny Cash took up the reins in 1979. Cash added the “Ghost” to the title and his version was on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart for 16 weeks; it made it to number 2.

The British band The Shadows—perhaps best known for backing Cliff Richard, but whose guitar work was clearly influential in that a 1996 tribute album, Twang! A Tribute to Hank Marvin [the lead guitarist] & the Shadows, includes performances by Ritchie Blackmore, Tony Iommi, Peter Green, Randy Bachman, Neil Young, Mark Knopfler, and Peter Frampton—did a version in 1980.

There is a cover by the post-John Belushi Blues Brothers in the unmemorable Blues Brothers 2000 soundtrack; the disc was released in 1998 (remember: 2000 was imagined to be a big deal).

Amazon offers a German import album titled Ghost Riders in the Sky that was released in 2019 and includes 30 versions of the song, including “Les Cavaliers Du Ciel,” “Jinetes En El Cielo” and “Geisterreiter,” which goes to show that the song crossed cultures.

Ballad of America, a 501(c)(3) whose mission is “to preserve and celebrate music from America’s diverse cultural history,” describes “Ghost Riders in the Sky”: “The song is a cautionary tale warning a cowboy that if he doesn’t change his ways, he will one day join the damned cowboys doomed to try to ‘catch the Devil’s herd across these endless skies.’”


If you want to save your soul from hell a-riding on our range
Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride

Ted Gioia recently published a piece on his “The Honest Broker” site on the subject of what he calls “fake artists.”

He explains that often people stream background music. It turns out that in the cases he examines, this music includes performances by, well, people who make The Ramrods seem familiar.

“For example, a search for ‘jazz’ on a streaming platform leads you to a number of playlists,” he writes. He looks at the first result, assuming that it would include highly recognizable jazz performers, Armstrong or Coltrane, Davis or Holiday.

“In fact, I only recognized two names in the first 15 tracks.”

He didn’t recognize, for example, not surprisingly, Hara Noda. He did a Google search and found a Noda album with two tracks, one of which has nearly 4-million plays and the other some 4,300.

“Clearly placement on a featured playlist has generated a load of royalties. . . . But for whom?”

This is the money passage in the piece:

“Hara Noda seems to be a real person, working as a producer and drummer in Sweden—which, by pure coincidence, is the same place where Spotify has its headquarters. In fact, the number of fake artists whose music comes out of Sweden is extraordinary. But even the numbers may be misleading. According to one survey, ‘about 20 people are behind over 500 artist names.’”

It seems that much of the benefit redounds to the likes of the labels who orchestrate such musicians. And if the playlists are populated with the likes of Hara Noda rather than Keith Jarrett or Esperanza Spaulding, isn’t it the case that the payout will be less from the streaming service than it otherwise might be?


Consider Stan Jones’s song and the number of artists who did their versions of it. This is a case where there was active listening, where Burl Ives worked to best Bing Crosby and consumers ended up winners, regardless of whether they liked folk singers or crooners.

There were subsequent musicians—like Cash—who worked to “own” the song by bringing something signature to it, even though by 1979 it was more than 30 years old. But that wouldn’t matter to those who sought Cash’s work.

The issue isn’t Hara Noda or the ranks of other musicians who do that work. They are not “fake.” They are like the rest of us, just trying to earn a living.

While they might be considered to be analogous to ghostwriters who work in the printed space, the ghostwriter at least has the task of trying to create the voice of the person who they are pretending to be, which can be a challenging task.

Presumably those musicians who are creating background music for people to sweat or cook or study by are simply trying to be as anodyne as possible. They don’t want to sound distinctive. A blur is better.

Those who underwrite this work by blithely listening to algorithmically generated lists rather than by deliberately seeking out musicians are the ones who deserve to spend their days “Trying to catch the devil’s herd/Across these endless skies.”

Audio: Stan Jones and his Death Valley Rangers – “Riders in the Sky”

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