Most people I've met believe that all songs had an author somewhere; even if it was centuries ago, and the song is hardly recognizable today. A few scholars, though, believe that the old ballads arose spontaneously and collaboratively; they have no authors.
In general I think that the first group is right; somebody wrote most of those old songs. But there are exceptions. "The Storms Are on the Ocean" appears to have been assembled from at least two sources (perhaps more; some texts of this song include "floating verses" such as the famous text "Oh don't you see that lonesome dove / that flies from pine to pine").
The story begins with an extremely depressing ballad, "The Lass of Roch Royal" or "Lord Gregory" (Child #76). In this old Scottish song (dating from no later than the middle of the eighteenth century), Lady Anne comes to Lord Gregory's door, their illegitimate child with her, begging him to take her in. Lord Gregory being asleep or absent, his mother or his servants turn Anne away. By the time Lord Gregory gets back to marry her, she is drowned or otherwise dead.
Amid all this gloom and doom, we find a few less morbid lyrics:
O wha will shoe my fu fair foot?
And wha will glove my hand?
And wha will lace my middle sae jimp*
Wi' a new-made Lon[d]on band.
Though the rest of the song rarely made it out of Scotland (I know of only three substantial American texts), the stanzas of "Who will shoe my pretty little foot" are extremely common in this country. (Randolph, for instance, reports eight versions from the Ozarks, and Brewster has nine from Indiana).
The second piece of our puzzle also starts in Britain, this time with the huge mass of songs about sailors leaving girls behind. These songs in Britain often go by titles such as "Rosemary Lane"; in this country, we more often find them under such names as "Home, Dearie, Home."
In America, these songs had a particular vogue in the middle of the nineteenth century. Quite a few made it into the music halls and popular broadsheets.
Somehow -- and I don't think anyone knows how -- one or more of these songs came to be mixed up with the "pretty little foot" lyrics, supplying the first verse, the words of the chorus, and the final verses of some of the texts. The tune probably derives from the "pretty little foot" family.
The resulting song seems to have been in the oral tradition of the Carter Family; it was one of the first songs they recorded. Chances are, however, that their version was touched up a little; they often modified their songs.
I don't have any idea where I learned the melody here -- but since it's from my personal tradition, this is the tune I chose to print. As you can see, I marked two melodic lines in the chorus. The top line is the melody I know; the bottom line -- which harmonizes with it -- contains most of the variants shown in the New Lost City Ramblers' edition of the song. (My apologies for not including a tenor harmony; if you want one of those, you would probably have to pitch the song down from the key of D to A or B.) The "Gmod" chord in the second measure of the third line is a "G modal" chord (my music software doesn't like long chord names). I've heard blue-grassers call this a "power chord;" on guitar or banjo, instead of playing a G chord with the B string open, fret it at the third fret (you can play an ordinary G chord if you prefer, but it sounds weaker).
I'm going away for to leave you, love,
I'm going away for a while.
But I'll return to you some time
If I go ten thousand miles.
The storms are on the ocean,
The heavens may cease to be.
The world may lose its motion, love,
If I prove false to thee.
Oh, who will shoe your pretty little
And who will glove your hand?
And who will kiss your red, rosy cheeks
When I'm in a foreign land?
Papa will shoe my pretty little foot,
Mama will glove my hand,
And you can kiss my red rosy cheeks
When you come back again.**
I'm never going back on the ocean,
I'm never going back on the sea.
I'm never going back on the pretty little girl
Who gave her heart to me.
* sae jimp = "so slender"
** Jean Redpath sings a version of this verse in which the final two
Sister will kiss my red rosy cheeks,
And I don't need no man.
Feminism in folk music goes back a long way!
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