“Riders in the Sky” was written and recorded by Stan Jones accompanied by the Death Valley Rangers (Mercury 1949). Jones, the composer, drifted away, shrouded by ghostly cowboys floating into obscurity when Vaughn Monroe’s RCA recording became more popular.
Ghostwriters (GW) are another secret veiled by the clouds. Their roles vary. Sometimes a GW interviews a person about specific events and shapes them into a blob of words that eventually becomes an inspirational book. Sometimes the ghostwriter begins with another person’s notes or ideas and whittles them into a memoir or self-help book. Sometimes a ghostwriter cuts and clips a poorly written fiction manuscript and embellishes it until it gleams like a cowboy’s silver belt buckle. That—and payment—are his reward because the published book wears the name of the fictitious writer.
“But that’s cheating,” you say.
The ghostwriter says it’s payment for work similar to writing a technical report, or create advertising copy while freelancing or salaried by a company. I say it’s like picking cotton.
My father approved of producing without bragging rights. We picked cotton for pennies per pound. Father carried the stuffed ten-foot canvas cotton sacks over his shoulder to the hanging scales. He penciled the weight in a notebook, deposited it back into the pocket of his work shirt, and hoisted the bag onto his shoulder again. He climbed a wooden ladder resting against a wire-sided trailer and emptied the sack onto puffy fiber from other laborers. The owner towed the overstuffed trailer to a gin where it was baled with cotton from other farmers. The gin sold the bales to a textile maker which produced bolts of fabric with their brand printed in the selvage (My father would have said selvedge, the British spelling, but he had no interest in sewing—that was woman’s work.) My mother bought yardage from the local Five and Dime and made my clothes. From the remnants, she pieced quilts. The cotton we picked in it’s refined stage clothed and warmed us.
Today, I salute Donald Bain (March 6, 1935 – October 26, 2017), the ghostwriter of the “Murder She Wrote” novels accredited to Jessica Fletcher, the Margaret Truman Capital Crime series, and many other ghostwritten books. In 2003, he published Lights Out with his name embellished above the title on the front cover. That brought Mr. Bain out of anonymity into the spotlight. Now he receives recognition as the original books are republished with his name on the covers, but there may be a few still clothed in secrecy, like the cotton my family picked that wore another name.