Gospel great Clarence Fountain, leader of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, thought the phone call telling him the National Endowment for the Arts had awarded him a National Heritage Fellowship was a joke. Especially the part about the money.

" 'You're going to give me $10,000?' " Fountain recalls saying. "And then I was glad, because it's good for the gospel, and it's a shot in the arm for us. We love it."

Cajun musician D.L. Menard was also a bit skeptical. "For about 15 minutes I was waiting for the punch line. I just knew it was a joke. Then I said, 'Thank you!' "

Typically, though, each of this year's 11 recipients would likely suggest that the fellowships are not about individuals but traditions. As Irish American fiddler Liz Carroll puts it, "There's an awful lot of people that are doing the very same thing, an awful lot of hard workers and beautiful musicians, and I think it could have been a lot of people."

That's it, of course. Menard, Fountain and Carroll are exactly "we the people," the kind who make art out of everyday life, who are the exemplars of continued traditions, and for whom the cultural process is more crucial than commercial consideration. They generally do not make a living from their chosen craft, but they do make a life from it.

Tonight, the National Heritage Fellowship winners will appear in a free concert at Lisner Auditorium. When they were honored on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "Each is an inheritor of the best of our cultural past, someone who has upheld the highest standards of achievement forged by generations of people who came before.

"They also represent the very rich, collective, multi-stranded traditions that made up our country and made up the arts, which are so critical to the definition of who we are as a people. ... They represent the diversity in art and culture, but, even beyond that, the diversity of human experience, human aspiration, that is really at the core of the American experience."

Champion of Cajun Culture The first time D.L. Menard visited the Washington area was in 1973, but what he thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip was only the start of a remarkable journey that has allowed Menard to champion his Cajun culture.

At the time, Menard's Louisiana Aces had broken up and he was simply sitting in with other bands in Louisiana dance halls. But then Menard, known as "the Cajun Hank Williams," was asked to bring the Aces to the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap.

"It changed my musical career 100 percent because we had never played for that many people," Menard says in cadenced, heavily French-accented English. "When we got on that stage, I didn't know whether to stay there or run away, that's how stunned I was. I was just as green as grass, man."

The Cajun culture that Menard represents derived from the 1775 British expulsion of French-speaking colonials from Acadia, in what is now Nova Scotia. Many Acadians settled in south Louisiana and maintained their own culture. But in 1916, French was banned from the state's elementary schools, and that culture began eroding.

"A lot of time, we were ashamed to be Cajun," recalls Menard. "We were ashamed to play our music in front of outsiders because to us music that wasn't nationwide, like country and western, it wasn't good music."

But seeds of pride were planted in 1951 when Menard met his hero, Hank Williams. "We started talking about the music, and I told him I sang all his songs in a Cajun group. He said, 'Thank you. Now, remember when you start recording ...' I cut him off, said 'Hank, we'll never record -- remember it's Cajun music we're recording, it's just music we grew up with.'

"And he said, 'It's yours.' I said, 'What you mean?' He said, 'It's your music and it's good. Any music, if it's your music, it's good. ... You play it like you feel, believe you me, it's good music regardless of what it is.' "

Williams's support was atypical at the time, and it was not until the folk revival and attendant support in the '60s that traditional folk arts began to receive serious attention: The first Cajun cultural festival in Louisiana came the year after Menard's Wolf Trap show.

"It's funny how things change," Menard says in words that could come from any of the National Heritage Fellows. "We had a unique thing, and we did not know about it."

Born in 1932 and raised in the small town of Erath, Menard didn't hear live Cajun music until he was 16 and was transfixed by the guitar playing in his uncle's band. He talked his parents into sending away for an $11 guitar from the Montgomery Ward catalogue, upgrading soon after to a $25 model from the Sears Roebuck catalogue (they sent a $45 model by mistake; he kept it).

"I was determined, oh, I was determined," says Menard, "and six months later I played my first job, with Elias Badeaux and the Louisiana Aces as a fill-in, and I've been playing ever since. It didn't take me long to learn the ropes, to play the music and to make the people dance."

After joining the Aces in 1949, Menard spent the first three years singing in English. Then his wife, Lou Ella, asked him to sing in French one night. "I could hardly speak English, but I couldn't sing in French. I'll never forget the expression on their face when I sang that Cajun song, 'Gran Texas,' the tune that 'Jambalaya' comes from."

Since Hank Williams did a little borrowing, it was only fair that Menard did the same in 1962 when he based "La Porte Dans Arriere" ("The Back Door") on Williams's "Honky-Tonk Blues." This coming-of-age song, which has since become a Cajun music staple, was written down in English because Menard didn't know how to write in French, either.

After working as a farmer and gas station attendant, he finally found a steady source of income that didn't conflict with his music: the D.L. Menard Chair Factory (actually a one-room building next to his house; it burned down last year and is being rebuilt). Menard proudly lists his stock -- ladder-back Cajun chairs, high-back porch rockers, platform rockers, baby chairs and baby rockers, Cajun stools, all made of ash, with seats woven by Lou Ella. The chairs are functional, comfortable and local: Menard (who attends many festivals as both musician and chairmaker) refuses to ship them out of town.

"That's my life," says Menard. "The music was just frosting on the cake, but now it's just about half of my life. I can do it because I work for myself, I work alone. Whenever I want to go out there and make a show, I just lock the shop, make my tour, come back home and my shop's waiting for me."

And the touring has been extensive, including State Department-sponsored trips to Asia and Central and South America.

"As of now I've been to my 33rd country," Menard says. "When we went to Wolf Trap, to us that would have been a once-in-a-lifetime thing, the only opportunity we would have. I had no idea, never entered my mind, that we was going to keep on traveling."

'The Lord Has a Way' Born in Selma, Ala., in 1916, Clarence Fountain was almost 3 when he lost his sight because of pinkeye. At 7, he was sent to Alabama's Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind. That's where the seeds of a half-century-long career were sown as music teachers introduced the youngster and several of his friends to classical choral works of Bach, Monteverdi and Mozart (they were taught to read music in Braille).

"That's because the teachers were white and they only could teach us what they knew," Fountain says.

Outside the classroom, Fountain and his friends were embracing emerging gospel trend-setters like the Soul Stirrers, Dixie Hummingbirds and Sensational Nightingales, but a career in that field was the last thing on their minds. "The Lord has a way of doing things in His own time and His own way," says Fountain.

Formed in 1939 when the boys were 14 and dubbed the Happy Land Singers, the group started out in the more genteel, structured jubilee harmony style, but they gradually moved to the more impassioned quartet style -- some called it "hard gospel" -- that would dominate in the '40s and '50s. This style reflected the driving rhythms and emotional fervor of the "sanctified" Pentecostal and holiness churches and tended to feature a prominent, charismatic lead singer -- in this case, Fountain.

After leaving Talladega in 1944, the boys turned professional, changing the group's name in 1948 when a concert promoter booked them with a group from another school for the blind and set off a friendly rivalry that would last for decades. The Happy Land Singers and the Jackson Harmonies became, respectively, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.

Starting with the 1949 hit "I Can See Everybody's Mother but Mine," Fountain and his group became successful on both the recording and touring fronts, so it was hardly surprising that managers and record company owners tried to persuade them to cross over. The line between gospel and classic soul music was thinner than some wanted it to be, and Sam Cooke's defection from the Soul Stirrers was one of gospel's lasting scandals.

Bumps Blackwell, who managed both Cooke and Fountain's group, tried to get them to secularize "In the Garden" into "Oh My Darlin'," and, says Fountain, "he gave us $1,500 a week to come out to California and go rock-and-roll. But we stuck with our gospel thing. We didn't want to do it because it seemed like a turnaround, a turn-back, not giving God the play that He should have. So we decided: Let's stick with what we got, and believe our day is coming."

It did, belatedly, when composer Bob Telson and director Lee Breuer decided in 1983 to recast Sophocles' Greek tragedy "Oedipus at Colonus" as a black Pentecostal church service, with all the roles performed by gospel singers. They envisioned Fountain and the Blind Boys as a sort of collective Oedipus, the blind exiled king who finds redemption at the end of his tormented journey. That's also the promise of gospel, of course.

At first, Fountain was not interested. "No way, because when I listened to the tape of how they had it sketched out, it was too dull and didn't make no sense to me. I couldn't feature ourselves working in a play. But when we got it together to sit down and they gave us the opportunity to change everything to the way we wanted and put the right beat to the right song, that interested me."

"Gospel at Colonus" became a critical and commercial hit, says Fountain. "That's the thing that put us in the mind of the masses of people. We already knew how to sing to the masses of people, we just never had the opportunity."

Though soloists and choirs now dominate gospel, the Blind Boys continue to perform, in concerts, clubs and, quite often, overseas (next month they go to Japan and Europe).

"We try to do all we can while we can," says Fountain.

'Playing What I Knew' At 38, Liz Carroll is one of the youngest recipients of a National Heritage Fellowship, but she's hardly lacking in acclaim, having won the All-Ireland fiddling championship at 19.

Born in Chicago to Irish parents, Carroll is living testament to the vitality of traditional music. Her father was a button accordion player, her grandmother a fiddler, but she's as much the daughter of Johnny McGreevey, Joe Shannon and Seamus Cooley, Irish immigrants to Chicago who would gift her not only with tunes and techniques but the rich folklore attending the music.

In terms of fiddling, Carroll was to the manner born. "My grandmother played the fiddle, but I didn't have any particular fancy for the violin," she says. "I didn't think about it one way or the other -- until we got one home. It was just a matter of having one in my hands and I liked it right away."

That's the way it was with traditional Irish music too. Early on, Carroll had taken classical lessons. "They were great. I just never knew what classical music was or where I was heading. My parents never played classical music at home and every piece that I ever played, I was hearing it for the first time, whereas with the Irish music, I was just playing what I already knew. "

Carroll's parents sought out lay people "to help, but they always felt they didn't read music and there wasn't anything they could teach me. They'd say, 'You have a good ear, you're doing the right thing, you're on the right road ...'

"All I did was watch everybody."

She did this often, and apparently well, at "sessions" -- informal music gatherings in people's homes or at community sites. "My parents would take me once or twice a month," Carroll explains. "You sat down in a circle with your violin and you just tried. People kept starting tunes and playing and sometimes you'd put your instrument down and go play with other kids -- I was very young -- but that's really where you start learning. You sit in there and you try -- quietly -- until you get the tune down. It was a very easygoing process."

Carroll also started competing (and winning, though she insists it's because no one else competed), gradually moving into more advanced sessions and playing for Irish dancing schools. Even now, her repertoire consists primarily of Irish dance music.

It all paid off when Carroll entered the Fleadh Cheoil in Ireland, the annual "world championship" of Irish traditional music. Winners are crowned "All-Ireland Champion" in different instrumental categories, and after winning the junior division in 1973 and 1974, she won the senior division fiddle crown in 1975. At 19, Carroll was the youngest, and the first woman, to win that category.

Still, Carroll has never worked full time as a musician and in recent years has limited her travels in favor of raising a family. "I did work as a schoolteacher, and I now teach music around Chicago," Carroll says. "I still do things -- if I can go for a weekend or one day, I can do that. You do miss out."

This is said without regret, and there is none about the odd levels of support for traditional Irish music, even in Chicago, with its long cultural history for Irish Americans.

"It's a funny music," Carroll explains. "A lot of people that really like it also play it, so it's kind of low on fans."

The other National Heritage Fellowship winners are:

Native American basket maker Mary Mitchell Gabriel of Princeton, Maine.

Hispanic American embroiderer Frances Varos Graves of Ranchos de Taos, N.M.

Texas swing fiddler Johnny Gimble of Dripping Springs, Tex. Native American storyteller Violet Taqsheblu Hilbert of Seattle.

Japanese American master of the tea ceremony Sosei Shizuye Matsumoto of L.A.

Arab American oud virtuoso Simon Shaheen of New York.

Armenian American embroiderer Lily Vorperian of Glendale, Calif.

African American harmonica player Elder Roma Wilson of Blue Springs, Miss.