The American Midwest (where the east merges with the west) is well-known for its furious and energetic spring and summer thunderstorms, a geographical phenomenon caused by cold air masses coming down from the north meeting up with warm moist air from the Gulf, resulting in squall lines, severe thunderstorms, and tornadoes. The ferocity of such storms is therefore a result of the mixing of opposite forces from opposite directions, and leaves a certain energy in the air, something that always galvanized me in some strange way, making me feel an urge to be creative. I do my best writing during the storm season.
The Wild Hunt
The folklore of Europe and the Americas both agree that such lines of storms evoke images of a thundering army of soldiers, or hunters, or horsemen. In northern Europe, Odin, the ancient god of travel and battle frenzy was believed to lead a company across the skies on the “Wild Hunt.”
The riders on this hunt were spectral, and seeing them could be a presage for death or war. A witness might even be kidnapped by the wild party and made to ride with them. In many of these tales, a certain form of moral judgment is implied: the hunters are on an endless chase in the skies due to some misdeed, or a person who witnesses this supernatural spectacle may be cursed or blessed depending on his character or how he reacts to what he sees. These moral judgments shifted according to the customs of the time: the ghost rider was condemned because he went hunting on a Sunday, or because he went hunting on a nobleman’s land where he had no permission.
Scholars have noted that the famous and often recorded American country-western song “Ghost Riders in the Sky” is a retelling of this legend in a cowboy format. I think this is no doubt true, but leaves me with some head-scratching questions, which I can answer with my own speculations.
Officially titled “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend,” the song was written in 1948 by Stan Jones, at a time when western novels and movies were extremely popular in America. The whole theme of the Western genre revolves around the idea of a wild, lawless frontier land inhabited by men who live by their own wit and personal prowess. The Western is usually placed in the latter half of the 19th century (around 1870 to 1890) when this ideal of frontier existence was fading out and becoming replaced by “law and order” exemplified by agricultural settlers, townships, and the railroad.
I think the enduring popularity of the song rests on both its folkloric roots and its subliminal commentary on the social shift from “frontier” America to “civilized” America. In 1948, when the song was written, the United States had come out victor from a worldwide war. The former colonial powers were lying in ruins, devastated by the conflict. America, however, was on the verge of emerging as a new world power, and the decade of prosperity of the 1950’s was just around the corner.
A Cowboy and a War God
Interestingly, the song’s melody is based on a Civil War song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a song that celebrates the return home of a soldier from a devastating war. The Western genre, as I said, is nearly always set in a time just after the end of the Civil War, a time when all Americans were re-evaluating what it meant to be an American, what the values and ethos of the country would be. What new identity could America forge for itself? And the following frontier wars between settlers and Indians, and settlers and cowboys/ranchers, was also a conflict of identity, a conflict on what an American’s relationship to the land itself should be. (And in the legend of the Wild Hunt, the moral crime always seems to have something to do with the misuse of land).
It’s no accident that the song invokes Odin, the old Germanic god of war. As he rides across the sky chasing “the devil’s herd” he calls out to the cowboy who is witnessing the Wild Hunt (the world war?) and tells him bluntly that if he doesn’t “change his ways” he will be swept away to ride forever in the skies with the other ghosts.
The two meanings of the song are in this way interwoven: the cowboy represents the carefree, frontier way of the life in late 19th century America, which is coming to an end. And it is also telling the story of America in 1948, which must accept a new powerful role as leader of the western world, and thus provide law and order on a global scale. If the cowboy in the song (who represents the archetypal American), fails to make this transition in role, he may find himself the catalyst of another great war, led away by Odin. What a responsibility!
The song has remained popular in country-western music for over sixty years now, recorded by over fifty artists. Americans perhaps are still struggling with the message! Enjoy this video of Johnny Cash’s version the next time a big storm rolls your way.
Postscript: It should be noted that early 20th century American President Theodore Roosevelt, known as the “Rough Rider,” was often criticised for his overbearing, cavalier, and militant style of international relations and foreign policy, something that came to be known as “cowboy diplomacy.” In fact, whenever Americans are criticised on an international stage it usually is on the basis of some “inner cowboy” urge in the American psyche.