The thing people know about fingerprints is that each person's is unique. This truth is the basis for much crime-solving and now, with the advent of tiny scanners, security and crime prevention.
The main character in this song, however, the "former talk-show host," dismisses this idea as a "myth." As he says, "I've seen them all/ And... they're all the same."
Meaning that the idea of people being unique is a myth. The host is not bragging that he has literally seen every fingerprint of every person-- not even the FBI's experts have done that. Rather, in his line of work, he has met enough people of all walks of life-- from celebrities to those of us who will never be-- to know that people are truly more alike than they are different.
The opening line, "over the mountain, down in the valley," is likely not a throw-away line by Simon, but probably a reference to Hollywood, which lies in a valley... near the mountain the famous HOLLYWOOD sign is on.
The second verse shifts the scene dramatically to "Out in the Indian Ocean somewhere," where, on some island, lies a "former Army post." We can guess that this is a relic of the Viet Nam War, but might also date back to WWII.
In any case, the host explains that this is one of the results of the myth of individuality. If we did not separate ourselves into factions, insisting upon the reality of imagined (or over-emphasized) differences, he posits, there would be no more wars. And so no need of Army posts-- they would all become "former" ones.
The last verse returns us to the talk-show host's living room couch. This pernicious myth, he concludes, doesn't only foster international conflict. It also has more a personal impact. It causes us to "live alone." We can never be truly united and truly live together, he sighs, if we continue to declare that we are as unique as our fingerprints.
As if the jump from a "talk-show host" to an "army post" wasn't enormous enough, Simon elaborates that the "myth" is pervasive throughout time and space. For time, he talks about a day, from sun-up to a sunset (either "weary" or "bloody" depending on whether we are talking about a TV show or war). He evokes the concept "since the dawn of time" by picking a thing that has been on Earth for eons-- the "watermelon."
And while he acknowledges that some reformers have asked if the myth can ever be shattered by an alternative social construct ("Somebody said, 'What's a better thing to do?'"), he admits that this is unlikely, as the problem is so pervasive. It is both interpersonal and global: "It's not just me, and it's not just you/ This is all around the world."
And so not just South Africa. The myth lead to apartheid, to be sure, but the issues of discrimination and segregation do not by any means end with the borders in which this abhorrent practice dwelt.
As many problems as the myth causes, from individual alienation to civil-rights violation to international conflagration, the myth is too appealing for anyone to want to dispense with it. (To be fair, social experiments in which millions of people were treated exactly the same-- Mao's China, for instance-- have not necessarily been successful, either.)
In a sense, this song is Simon's response to John Lennon's "Imagine." In that song, Lennon explains what if would take for humanity to "live as one." Simon responds that this goal will remain imaginary as long as we buy into the "myth" that each of us is unique.
There is no "humanity," all the with the same ancestry and DNA, each of us says. There are only us "humans" and our own snowflake-unique "fingerprints."
(OK, fine... my personal guess? I think the "former talk-show host" is Phil Donahue, but I have no proof; the character may be entirely imaginary. The whole idea of using such a figure to deliver the message of the song might simply have been Simon's attempt to find someone who would have conversed with the widest range of people.)
The backing band for this track is by the very talented and wide-ranging act Los Lobos.
Sadly, there is some contention over the degree of their contribution to the track. Los Lobos is credited with playing and harmonizing, but not co-authorship. They claim that Simon did not credit them properly for coming up with the song and outright "stole" it. The album's notes credit Simon solely.
While I, of course, have no idea who is right, it seems dubious that Simon would share credit with so many others on this album-- five co-writers, on five of the 11 tracks-- and not them. Simon also points out that the first he had heard of this accusation was six months after the record had been released.
At least Los Lobos can be "comforted" by the knowledge that this track was not a hit.
The song did not chart, but its title was taken for a movie. The Myth of Fingerprints is a 1997 release about a dysfunctional family on a Thanksgiving weekend. (The movie was not a hit either.)
Next Song: Changing Opinion