“An old cowpoke went ridin’ out one dark and windy day…” except that Stan Jones, cowpoke, Park Ranger, songwriter, and actor…was not old when he died on December l3, 1963 at the age of 49, leaving his wife, Olive, son, SJ, friends from all walks of life, and a musical legacy in John Ford and Disney films, western television series, educational radio shows, and, of course, his most well-known song, “Riders in the Sky.”
For five years, my daughter and I lived with Olive and Stan, a household alive with music, laughter, and the comings and goings of various friends in the movie industry.The day after his death, people started arriving at the house with condolences and food…..Harry Carey, Jr. and his mother,Olive, Dorothy Ritter (Tex’s wife and once a schoolmate of Stan’s in Arizona),Ken Curtis and his wife, Barbara Ford(John’s daughter),Joanne Dru, Helen O’Connell, Wendell Corey, and The Sons of the Pioneers.The rooms were filled with memories and laughter and tears. It was a true Irish Wake for a beloved Welshman. During the next few days, calls came in from Fess Parker, Ben Johnson, Lorne Green, Dale Robertson, James Arness, Ken Tobey, John Bromfield, Rex Allen, Walter Brennan,Brian Keith, and on and on from composers and singers, all expressing their condolences, friendship, and offering to help in any way.
Through it all, the music of “Riders in the Sky” and the theme from “The Searchers” kept running through my mind, along with memories of listening to Stan play his guitar while composing a new song, and recording sessions. There were memorable days from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the sessions conducted by Carmen Dragon and the Philharmonic Orchestra of Stan’s songs for The Standard School Broadcast, to being approached by Frank Sinatra’s company to use some of his songs in his latest motion picture. They wanted the music, but only if Frank’s name appeared as co-composer. Stan’s reply,”It appears only if he wrote it, and he didn’t, so the answer is ‘No’. ” He was turning down thousands of dollars because integrity was more important.After I left Desilu, I worked as Stan’s assistant for two years before his death, the time filled with creativity and wonderful people.
There were times when we had religious discussions, and I will never forget what he said to me in utter frustration one day. “Why do you keep pretending you’re brass when God made you pure gold?” That remark struck home, and I have passed it on to hundreds of my students who, turn, remember it as well. He revered the gifts of God in nature and people and expressed them in his music. Stan was a composer/storyteller, and his stories were usually about men of the West. Take a look and a listen to “The Horse Soldiers,” “Wagonmaster,” “Ten Who Dared,” “The Searchers,” or the series “Cheyenne” or “Texas John Slaugher,” or “Spin and Marty,” for examples. One of his songs, “Wringle, Wrangle,” popular in the 1950s, was a light-hearted ditty, but “Riders in the Sky” says it all about the Western cowboy. Farewell, Stan, and I hope you’re surrounded by the red cliffs and sage and land that you loved, riding a lot of trails, and composing new songs.