You know this lesson,
The one about glass houses.
Don't throw stones in them.
Written by Bonnie Dodd in the late 1940s and recorded by Dion, Hank Williams and others, "Be Careful of Stones That You Throw" was one of the Basement Tapes recordings for Bob Dylan and the Band. It's a mawkish cautionary tale about the ironic consequences of talking behind the back of people whom you disrespect because of the errors in their lives. Naturally, we're assured, none of us is without sin so perhaps it's best to let stones lie instead of casting them.
The singer tells the story of a neighbor woman who shows up while he's gardening. She says she wouldn't let her daughter near the bad girl down the street who drinks and no doubt engages in other anti-social activity. Not long afterward, the singer hears the screeching brakes of a car, and discovers that the bad girl down the street saved the gossipy neighbor's daughter from being run over. The bad girl, of course, dies in her heroic action.
The lyrics for me carry that stifling fever of small-town America and the suburbs, the feeling that prosperity has brought with it the time to reflect darkly upon less important things, like shunning the slut who lives down the street, all combined with the weird sugar of the post-World War II years that descended on the USA like a sweet atomic cloud. Hearing the Dylan version performed up in the woods in the parlor of wherever it was recorded in Saugerties gives it a more haunting tone.
Here's the Staple Singers version, as well as Hank Williams's.