The song tells a folk tale of a cowboy who has a vision of red-eyed, steel-hooved cattle thundering across the sky, being chased by the spirits of damned cowboys. One warns him that if he does not change his ways, he will be doomed to join them, forever "trying to catch the Devil's herd across these endless skies". Jones said that he had been told the story when he was 12 years old by an old cowboy friend. The story resembles the northern European mythic Wild Hunt.
The song was also the inspiration for the Magazine Enterprises' horror-Western comic-book character the Ghost Rider. After the trademark to the character's name and motif lapsed, Marvel Comics debuted its own near-identical, non-horror version of the character in Ghost Rider #1 (Feb. 1967), drawn by Ayers. This character was renamed the Phantom Rider when Marvel debuted its demonic motorcyclist character Ghost Rider.
The chorus lines of this song are and have been since the 1960s a terrace song of the Aston Villa Football Club of England. The words have been modified to include the line "Holte Enders in the Sky," a reference to the occupants of the vast stand behind the goal at the southern end of the Villa Park stadium.
The song is also referenced in the Def Leppard song "Foolin'", with the line "On and on, we rode the storm".
Burl Ives recorded the song on February 17, 1949, and the song was released by Columbia Records as catalog No. 38445. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on April 22, 1949, lasting 6 weeks and peaking at No. 21.
The version by Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra with Vaughn Monroe and The Moon Men on vocals, was recorded on March 14, 1949, and released by RCA Victor Records as catalog No. 20-3411 (in USA) and by EMI on the His Master's Voice label as catalog No. BD 1247, HN 3014, HQ 2071, IM 1425 and GY 878. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on April 15, 1949, lasting 22 weeks and reaching No. 1.Billboard ranked it as the No. 1 song for 1949.
The Bing Crosby version was recorded on March 22, 1949, and released by Decca Records as catalog No. 24618. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on May 6, 1949, lasting 6 weeks and peaking at No. 14.
The Peggy Lee version was recorded on April 18, 1949, and released by Capitol Records as catalog No. 57-608. It reached No. 2 on Billboard's Most Played By Disc Jockeys listing without appearing in the retail Top 30.
Spike Jones recorded the song on May 24, 1949, and it was released by RCA Victor Records as catalog No. 20-3741. Copies of the original release, containing lyrics ridiculing RCA stockholder Vaughn Monroe, are rare. The recording parodies the original Monroe recording, injecting much of Jones' quintessential humor along the way.
The song was recorded by the Norman Luboff Choir and released on their 1960 album,Songs of the Cowboy.
Curtis Lance (Dick Jensen) and the Uniques recorded an instrumental version in 1961.
The Brothers Four recorded a driven, up-tempo version. with edited lyrics and truncated to three stanzas, for their third LP, B.M.O.C.: Best Music On/Off Campus for Columbia Records in 1961.
The Sons of the Pioneers included the song on their album Cool Water put out by RCA Records in 1961 under the name "Riders in the Sky.
A twangy guitar instrumental version by The Ramrods ‒ featuring the sounds of mooing cattle, bronco cheers, and sound of whips ‒ made the Billboard Top 30 in 1961 as well as the UK Top 10. This was covered by UK band The Scorpions (not the German rock band) on the "Parlophone" Label.
Johnny Cash made a recording of the song in 1979 for his album, Silver, which was faithful to the original. Johnny Cash also performs the song in his guest appearance on The Muppet Show in 1980.
Country singer and rodeo cowboy Chris LeDoux recorded a version of the song for his 1980 album Old Cowboy Heroes. LeDoux's version swaps the placements of "yippie yi yay" and "yippie yi oh", and refers to the cowboy instead as a "cowpoke".
Impaled Nazarene recorded a black metal version of the song, which was released on the Sadogoat EP in 1993. It was subsequently included in the CD version of their bonus album, Tol Cormpt Norz Norz Norz.
The Alberta Celtic rock group Captain Tractor recorded an unusual version for their 1994 album Land. New lyrics describe the frenzy of corruption in a prairie town at the climax of a real estate bubble. Rather than fire-and-brimstone Christian imagery, the warning takes the form of vaguely Zen lamentations: "The winds still blow/The rains still fall/The trees don't seem to care at all!"
The German "Western Metal" band Dezperadoz (featuring a member of Sodom) covered the song on their 2000 album, The Dawn Of Dying.
Dolan Ellis, Arizona's Official State Balladeer since 1966, included this as the only cover on his CD, Tall Tales, Lost Trails & Heroes, released in 2000. He has sung the song throughout the nation and in 20 foreign countries, solo and as a member of the New Christy Minstrels, always telling the folk tale of Stan Jones, the Cochise County cowboy.
Art Greenhaw, Grammy Award-Winning guitarist, producer and leader of The Light Crust Doughboys, recorded a world music fusion version of this song on the album "Lone Star Sitar" and released in 2006 on the Greenhaw Records label.
During the credits of the 2007 movie Ghost Rider, a rock cover by the band Spiderbait is played. An instrumental version is also heard at points in the film.
Finnish melodic death metal band Children of Bodom covered this song under the title 'Ghostriders in the Sky' and have released it on the special edition of their 2008 album, Blooddrunk.
Judy Collins, featuring the Nashville Rhythm Section and Ghost Riders Chorus, covered ”Ghost Riders in the Sky” on her 2010 album Paradise.
Florida/Utah death metal band, Gorlock, covered it on their 2011 EP entitled Despair is My Mistress.
The song is the opening track on Roswell Rudd's album, Trombone For Lovers.
A track on Drop The Lime's 2012 album Enter The Night used the instrumental of (Ghost) Riders in the Sky
"Outsider" music star, The Space Lady, featured it on her GREATEST HITS LP.(2013, Night School Records)
Versions in various genres have also been made by the following artists:
French guitarist and singer, Gill Dougherty, also released a version on his 1990 album, Live In Bourges.
In 1992, another French language version entitled "Où tu iras" was released by Les Naufragés, on their album "A contre-Courant"
In 1949, a German-language version entitled "Geisterreiter" was recorded and released by East German entertainer, Rita Paul & Her Cornel-Trio. In the same year, a version was released by Gerhard Wendland.
Additional German-language versions have been released by surf-punk-electro band, Mikrowelle, and television entertainer, Götz Alsmann featuring Bela B of Die Ärzte.
An instrumental version was done by the Austrian band "da Blechhauf`n" in 2012.
A Lithuanian-language version of the song etitled "Jupi Ja Je'" was recorded by Adolfas Jarulis ir Estradinės melodijos in 1971.
The popular singer from Spain, Raphael, also released a Spanish version in the 1970s. The lyrical subject was changed to reflect a cowboy doomed to ride for eternity for breaking a young girl's heart. The song ends happily when the girl saves him from that horrible destiny by crying and praying for him then letting a rose fall on his grave.
An Italian-language version of the song, entitled "I Cavalieri del Cielo" was recorded by famous Italian singer Gino Latilla in 1952.