7

In Paul Simon's album Graceland there is a song All Around the World.

This song has a repeating theme in the verses:

This is always some variation of:

There was no doubt about it,

It was the myth of fingerprints

The three instances are:

He says there's no doubt about it,

It was the myth of fingerprints

and

And there's no doubt about it

It was the myth of fingerprints

and

He said there's no doubt about it

It was the myth of fingerprints

(Full lyrics here)

Does anyone know what the myth of fingerprints is?

  • I'll have to read the full lyrics and/or listen to the song, but what do you think about this? Might that be it? – Shokhet Jul 20 '17 at 17:04
  • It could be, but I don't think it really fits with the lyrics. – Mirte Jul 21 '17 at 11:14
  • Just a thought that racism emphasises group similarities (them vs us) while the myth of fingerprints reflects individual differences, regardless of groups. – Bob Remington Nov 9 at 10:15
7

The "myth of fingerprints" is that by focusing on trivial aspects of ourselves, we appear to be very different when in fact we have much more in common with one another. It's also a literal myth: fingerprints are highly differential but they are not unique.

As user @PeterShor very helpfully observed in the comments, our commonality is emphasised by this line, where "they" is fingerprints:

I have seen them all, and man, they're all the same

While our differences are stressed by the final verse:

Lives a former talk-show host
And far and wide his name was known
He said, “There’s no doubt about it
It was the myth of fingerprints
That’s why we must learn to live alone”

The myth of fingerprints condemns us to live alone - as atomised, quarrelsome individuals - when we could instead enjoy the fruits of living in harmony. It's interesting that the subject of the song is a talk show host, someone who makes a living interviewing the rich and famous and thus focussing on what makes them "different" from everyday people.

The previous verse becomes interesting in this context:

Out in the Indian Ocean somewhere
There’s a former army post
Abandoned now just like the war
And there’s no doubt about it
It was the myth of fingerprints
That’s what that old army post was for

Armies are required because we fight over our differences: it's what "the old army post was for". There is, however, hope that we might learn. The army post is abandoned. There is also only one US army base in the Indian Ocean - Diego Garcia. Its inhabitants were forcibly removed by the US navy prior to building the base.

It's worth remembering that this is the closing track on an album which features critiques of racism as a major theme. Racism is founded on differences - the myth of fingerprints. This is all over other repeated structures in the song. "Watermelon" is a common racist motif in the US. "Black pit town," could be a mining town, or also a mining town populated by people of colour.

The lyrics about the sun rising and falling ("bloody" - another conflict motif) and "all around the world" suggest this has been going on essentially forever. We notice it - "somebody says what's a better thing to do" - but do nothing.

So this is a song about how conflict and oppression are built on emphasizing small differences between people. It opines that this is human nature and that we must, to some extent, learn to live with it. But that it shouldn't stop us asking questions and doing what we can to improve matters, even if we must, eventually, "learn to live alone".

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  • 1
    Great answer. But haven't you left out the line that points towards your answer most convincingly? "I've seen them all, and man, they're all the same," (they being fingerprints). – Peter Shor May 3 '19 at 0:44
  • @PeterShor An excellent observation and one that did indeed escape me! – Matt Thrower May 3 '19 at 7:25
4

Paul Simon was in South Africa during 1985 and 1986. There was a boycott against South Africa because of apartheid. For South Africans, the word associations arising from ‘fingerprints’ are typically police, passbooks and apartheid. The Myth of Fingerprints immediately suggests a political song with an anti-apartheid theme.

One of the cornerstone apartheid laws related to the passbook. A black man was always obliged to carry his passbook with him. It was an identity document with photograph, fingerprints and other information. Without a passbook you could be arrested and sent back to your homeland. The situation changed on July 23, 1986 when the South African government lifted the requirement to carry passbooks.

The topic of passbooks was newsworthy for many months, especially on talk radio. John Berks was active while Paul Simon was doing his South African project. John was a pioneer of talk radio. His job as a talk show host was to engender opinions, instil debate and communicate. The job was risky because there was no free speech in South Africa. He vigorously defended his right to say what he wished while on air and regularly offended listeners from all walks of life. Given the political situation and the censorship laws, he needed to be outside the country to do his job.

John worked for Capital Radio 604, a radio station that broadcast to listeners in South Africa from transmitters located in Port St Johns, Transkei using Medium Wave (AM) on 603 kHz.

Port St Johns is the border town on the Indian Ocean coast that is over the mountains. John Berks lived there. At the border post your fingerprints are checked. Once the system of passbooks was scrapped the border post was abandoned and the whole reason for homelands such as the Transkei disappeared. Words like 'war' and 'army' are accurate. In the 1980s South Africa deployed the army to control civil unrest.

In summary, the Myth of Fingerprints suggests a future scenario in South Africa where there is equality before the law for all people regardless of the fingerprints in their passbook.

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  • Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. I wonder if you have any references to back up your claim that the song is based on topical allusions? The phrase "myth of the fingerprints" does not sound very topical while listening to the song or even based on your explanation. You could also improve the relevance of your answer be removing the first paragraph. – Tsundoku Jun 2 at 18:07
  • Thanks for your advice, I rewrote the text. – Fred Jun 10 at 14:19
  • Much improved, now a good answer worthy of upvoting. Thanks for editing :-) – Rand al'Thor Jun 10 at 16:05

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