Elizabeth Cotten, 92, walked softly out on the stage at Ford's Theatre last night and began singing the song she wrote 80 years ago: "Freight Train."

As many of the 700 people in the audience accompanied her, singing, "Freight train, freight train, run so fast. Please don't tell what train I'm on. They won't know what route I've gone." Then the black songwriter stopped abruptly.

A tear ran down a deep wrinkled canal of her face and glistened in the spotlight. "I can't play I'm so nervous. I've never even made this much money in my whole life." After a standing ovation, she began again.

Cotten was one of the $5,000 National Heritage Fellowship winners who performed at the National Endowment of the Arts ceremony held in their honor.

"A kaleidoscope of American culture," endowment Chairman Frank Hodsoll called the 17 Heritage Fellows who were selected for their contribution to American folk tradition. The winners included an Alaskan ivory carver, an Appalachian banjo player and an Afro-American basketmaker.

"I didn't have no feelings when I heard I won. I was numb," said Howard "Sandman" Sims earlier in the day as he put on his tap shoes at the rehearsal. The tap-dancer moved to New York in 1946 and performed at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater for 17 years. Calling his age "a matter of opinion" he rattled the taps of his shoes and danced across the stage. "I thought I was making noise all these years," he grinned. "Now they're calling it culture."

"The highlight of my life, that's for sure," said tap-dancer Sims of the award. "It gives me incentive to pass it on. Who knows, someone else might be able to do it better. I feel like I have just started to dance."

"When I heard I won it, I felt like I was getting married all over again," said Irish American fiddler Martin Mulvihill. He quickly added that at his age -- 65 -- it was a "bit late to be doing that."

Mulvihill teaches hundreds of students in the Bronx and plans to use the award money to publish a book on traditional Irish music. "People are more concerned with tradition here than they are in the old country," says the native of West Limerick, Ireland. "Once they move away from home they yearn for it more."

While some of the artists were rehearsing, one of the new Heritage Fellows, clarinetist Dave Tarras, suffered an apparent heart attack a few blocks away. He was performing his klezmer music, traditional dance instrumentals at Jewish weddings, for an outdoor lunchtime crowd at the Old Post Office Pavilion.

A George Washington University Hospital spokesman last night said he was in critical condition in the coronary unit.

Tarras' band, the Andy Statman Klezmer Trio, played in his honor and dedicated their music to the "tradition our teacher brings alive."

Hawaiian hula and chant teacher, Emily Kau'i Zuttermeister, 75, said before the show that if she didn't teach her daughter and granddaughter the songs and dances of her forefathers "they would disappear. Nobody ever wrote them down."

She opened the performance last night wearing a dozen jasmine leis that her students gave her when she left Honolulu. Looking out into the audience she said, "I think I am the first person in my profession to win this award. It's quite an honor."

"You were terrific, Granny," Cotten's 8-year-old great-great granddaughter, Libba Fennell from Southeast D.C., shouted as she spotted the songwriter in the front row. As admirers asked Cotten what she was going to do with the money, she looked at Libba and smiled -- "Save it for my old age."

1984 National Heritage Fellowship Awardees

Clifton Chenier, Creole accordionist, Lafayette, La.

Bertha Cook, knotted bedspread maker, Boone, N.C.

Joe Cormier, Cape Breton violinist, Waltham, Mass.

Elizabeth Cotten, songster/songwriter, Syracuse, N.Y.

Burlon Craig, Appalachian potter, Vale, N.C.

Albert Fahlbusch, hammered dulcimer maker/player, Scottsbluff, Neb.

Janie Hunter, singer/storyteller, Johns Island, S.C.

Mary Jane Manigault, Afro-American basketmaker, Mt. Pleasant, S.C.

Genevieve Mougin, Lebanese American lacemaker, Bettendorf, Iowa

Martin Mulvihill, Irish American fiddler, Bronx, N.Y.

Howard "Sandman" Sims, tap-dancer, New York, N.Y.

Ralph Stanley, Appalachian banjo player/singer, Coeburn, Va.

Margaret Tafoya, Santa Clara pueblo potter, Espanola, N.M.

Dave Tarras, klezmer clarinetist, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Paul Tiulana, Eskimo maskmaker/dancer/singer, Anchorage, Alaska

Cleofes Vigil, Hispanic storyteller/singer, San Cristobal, N.M.

Emily Kau'i Zuttermeister, hula master, Kaneohe, Hawaii