Fifteen men and women--Shapers, movers, founders and protectors of varied folk traditions--accepted the thanks of a nation Saturday evening as the National Endowment for the Arts unveiled its annual National Heritage Fellowships at the Departmental Auditorium. The ceremony had been moved inside from the Festival of American Folklife because of intermittent rain, but not a single spirit was dampened. On stage, much of the hair was white or gray, and the faces were tough with experience, but the eyes were bright and expectant.

The 15 ranged from craftspeople who made sermons in wood or preserved history in ribbon and ironwork to musicians who had inspired or fine-tuned styles as disparate as bluegrass, blues and cajun. These are "the people who have given this country a spiritual signature," said folklorist Alan Lomax. "This is the first time America has turned around and given proper credit where credit was due to the folk tradition for having made America a wonderful place to live in.

"In the last 50 years, we have moved with giant strides toward something we think of as social and economic justice. Tonight we move to an important new idea--cultural equity, cultural democracy, where we recognize that America's most precious possession is its diverse cultural heritage."

The fellowships, which carry a $5,000 cash honorarium and are the first such honors at a national level, were handed out by Frank Hodsoll, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Bess Lomax Hawes, director of NEA's Folk Arts Program. "These awards are of the people and by the people and for the people from the people to the people," said Hawes. "I don't think Mr. Lincoln would mind my messing up his beautiful quotation on this occasion."

The recipients seemed embarrassed as well as proud, as if they would be more comfortable building a stage than sitting on one. Following the awards, each winner gave a brief performance, with several of the craftspeople making short speeches. In their directness, one sensed a creative tradition that had never been geared to reward: Most of the honorees have labored unrecognized and unrewarded for decades.

For Bill Monroe, who had jubilantly accepted his award as if it were a championship fight belt, it was vindication of his founder's role. "Bluegrass is a music I originated," he said simply. "I wanted a music of my own, and I'd get out in the field by myself and sing and wonder if I could ever do anything with it. I know you think that I'm a braggin', but I'm just a tellin' you the truth."

Other truths were made self-evident in each acceptance and performance. Monroe tapped his feet when North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell explored the repetitions and subtle variations of his sprightly mountain music; it was part of the fertile ground that bluegrass grew from, and everyone was sure to point to teachers and to family, to those who had sewn the seeds of tradition and inspired the passion in their own work.

When Bessie Jones, the charismatic Georgia Sea Island singer who revived the intense black vocal traditions, was helped by Douglas and Frankie Quimby on the amen song popularized in "Lilies of the Field," the Quimbys looked at her lovingly. "Bessie Jones is where we come from," Douglas Quimby said.

Woodcarver George Lopez, a New Mexican carver of santos or religious figures, spoke in impassioned Spanish with an eloquent emotion that eliminated any need for translation. Ballad singer Joe Heany stood like a Prussian and sang about an ancient battle, a round-by-round description of the boxing match between "Morrisey and the Roosian Sailor." He also gave a hilarious and tongue-twisted history of one particular Irish tune that led emcee Theodore Bikel to suggest that "history should be taught by folk singers, not historians."

The rugged individuality of each honoree shone through: the dramatic delivery of Lydia Mendoza; the insistent syncopations of Adam Popovich's tamburitza music; the lonesome, human wail of Sonny Terry's harmonica; Dewey Balfa's rhythm-crazy cajun dance tunes; the timeless faith inherent in Hugh McGraw's fa-sol-la singers. Osage ribbonworker Georgeann Robinson, carver-painter Elijah Pierce, ornamental ironworker Philip Simmons and blues guitarist Brownie McGhee also received fellowships. They were all, as Frank Hodsoll said, "brilliant jewels."

Oregonian Duff Severe, a wonderfully thin figure right out of a Western, remembered learning rawhide work from his father and grandfather "out of necessity. There wasn't a town you could go to and buy things. I remember old bloody, hairy hides and they'd take the hair off them and clean 'em up and soon they'd have something beautiful braided out of them." It was an uncannily vivid description of the folk process in general.

Like all those honored by the NEA, Severe has been making his saddles and bridles and bits for decades, a master craftsman living out the quality of his work, teaching bright secrets and ensuring the continuity of his particular tradition. Yet he also spoke to a central inspiration and strength that courses through the life and work of each honored artist and artisan when he said, "A man who loves his work never gets through serving his apprenticeship. I don't think I'm a master, but I'm hoping in another 30 years I will be." Folklife Events

11 a.m.-3 p.m.--Oklahoma fiddle music, blues, shape-note singing, gospel, black swing, western swing, family string band: Oklahoma Music Stage.

11 a.m.-5:30 p.m.--All-day demonstrations of oil exploration, pumping, gauging and drilling: Oil Area.

11 a.m.-5:30 p.m.--Korean musical and dance soloists: Korean Music Stage.

11 a.m.-5:30 p.m.--All-day craft demonstrations by National Heritage Fellowship recipients: Museum of American History.

3 p.m.-4 p.m.--Performance horse events: Horse and Track Arena.

4 p.m.-5:30 p.m.--Dance party with Mexican-American music: Oklahoma Music Stage.